• CS Stewart

    In this post I’m going to investigate the concepts of good and evil in terms of their prior probability values related to theism. I’d like to explore a nuanced Christian perspective that will perhaps disqualify evil as a necessary deduction from the prior probability of theism.
    I will attempt to qualify “ultimate goodness” from a Christian perspective, and from there, delineate pleasure and pain as lower forms of human experience. Thereby, I will try to demonstrate these “lower forms”, or non-paradisiacal experiences present to our human condition, as similar or equal in their probabilistic values for theism.

    Evil, in terms of the philosophy of religion, is often referred to as, “the problem of evil”; it is widely assumed that the extent of evil that exists in reality is an inherent issue for theism. While I agree that evils, especially those deemed as “horrendous evils” (those which possess virtually no conceivable justification) provoke challenging and complex questions for theism, I am curious to explore whether this is a distinction can also be applied to pleasures. Is it possible that the opposites of evil in life can also serve to dissuade one from theistic belief in a more counterintuitive and insidious fashion? This seems like a reasonable idea; but, if so, could it possibly be as strong of a probabilistic force against theism as the problem of evil? This seems less likely and would also render the probabilities between good and evil nonsensical, or at least significantly unfavorable for the theist. For, if both excessive good and excessive evil can be counted as hits against the prior probability of theism, then perhaps theism’s likelihood is down even further that assumed. Of course, I do not think this to be the case. Rather, by defining “ultimate goodness” and comparing excessive pleasures to the probabilistic value of evils, I hope to mitigate the problem of evil as necessarily opposed to theism.

    Although I have heard the phrase, “the problem of pleasure”, it is apparent that the idea of excessive pleasure or goodness does not carry the same faith-questioning weight as does the problem of evil. Thus, as argued by Benton, Isaacs, and Hawthorne in, “Evil and Evidence”, it seems reasonable that the prior probability of theism increases or decreases based on the relative proportions of existent goodness and evil. In the essay cited above, a world without any evil – an “Edenic” utopia – represents a higher probability for theism than our present reality. Therefore, by the same token, the very existence of evil in the real world represents an increase in the prior probability for atheism.

    I’m going to try to show that this is not the case; evil is not an indicator of prior probability for or against the existence of God. Before I formulate my argument, I will make a couple of preliminary comments.

    First, my argument will be based on the “Edenic world” concept as understood from Benton, Isaacs, and Hawthorne in the above citation. In this possible world, there are “pleasures with no pain… goods with no evil”; a reality assumed to “constitute a fairly overwhelming argument for the existence of God.”
    Second, I’d like to make a distinction between the Biblical concept of “Eden” and that of a secular utopia, thereby delineating “ultimate goodness” from this-worldly “pleasure.”

    From my understanding of the Biblical framework, the garden of Eden was distinguished by undeterred communion with the living God. What made this world essentially a heaven on earth was God’s full presence with humankind. Upon Adam and Eve’s rebellion, they were cast out of the garden – out of God’s communion. And this is where we find ourselves today – in an existence marked by some level of separation from God.

    From this Biblical or Christian perspective, nothing this side of heaven, outside of a relationship with God, can provide ultimate fulfillment. Even the best of pleasures – even a world without evil – cannot ultimately satisfy the deepest human longings for communion with God.

    Thus, I will set the stage. When discussing possible worlds for this argument, I will be using the “fallen” model; worlds comparable to ours in that they are similarly fractured or banished from “pure communion” and “ultimate goodness.” Regardless of their relative proportion of pleasure and pain, these worlds will exist in the Biblical pre-restoration model.
    I think this distinction is important, for if we lived in the type of Biblical Eden specified above, there would no question of God’s existence.

    In separating the experience of “ultimate goodness” from our framework for possible worlds, one can see the fallibility of this-worldly pleasure. In these terms, the best that our experience of goodness can provide is a semblance or shadow of ultimate goodness. In a Christian point of view, they can serve to direct one’s devotion to its most life-giving investment – God. However, to the extent that this-worldly pleasure can be a boon, it can also be a vice. Obvious dangers such as desensitization, distraction, self-aggrandizement, boredom, et al lurk readily within the pleasures of this world. Phrases like, “everything in moderation” speak to the fact that goodness can be precarious; imbalance can quickly turn pleasure into detriment.

    This discussion about the fallibility of this-worldly goodness may seem irrelevant; Benton, Isaacs, and Hawthorne’s picture of the “Edenic world” excluded all forms of evil. However, while I will digress and formulate a similarly “evil-less” world, I illustrate the fallibility of this-worldly goodness because it must, within the Christian framework I’ve outlined above, retain some form of imperfection. Basically, in this Christian qualification, perfect pleasure and goodness cannot exist outside of the “ultimate goodness” of God’s communion. Therefore, even an evil-less world will entail longing.

    Now, to explore what longing sans evil might look like, consider these preliminary Biblical passages:

    Deuteronomy 8:17: “Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth.’”

    Luke 8:14: “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life.”
    Exodus 13:17: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.”

    Deuteronomy 8:14-16: “God… who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness… that he might do good to you in the end”

    I understand that these passages are listed loosely and require contextual and exegetical explanations, but my goal here is not to provide a Biblical theology of suffering, evil, and pleasure. By listing these references, I only wish to show that it is apparently consistent within a Christian point of view to assume that suffering can have merit for a greater good, and pleasure can detract from such.

    In order to construct my argument tantamount to Benton, Isaacs, and, Hawthorne’s, I will need to pare down my concept of this-worldly goodness to entail no evil. Perhaps it is reasonable to limit the “fallibility” of pleasure and goodness as I have described it to a harmless possibility of distraction from theism. This seems to fit the framework of our discussion. For, pleasure as a source of disinterest in theism could essentially be evidence for its positive prior probability value for atheism – not some form of evil. For the theist, rejection of God, whether inadvertent or intentional, could be considered the “ultimate sin.” However, although I am approaching this argument form a particularly Christian perspective, theism is not a given; and according to the distinction of “ultimate goodness” within the framework I’ve established, this sort of “forgetfulness-potential” seems to be the only entailment left for this-worldly pleasures barring all evils. Indeed, the one thing that must remain in this framework is Biblically based longing, and a decision to embrace or reject God as the answer.
    Therefore, goodness entailing “deity-distraction” appears to be a designation each side of the theism debate can agree on for the purposes of this argument.

    Benton, Isaacs, and Hawthorne argue against the skeptical theists by incorporating prior probability and illustrating evil as pertinent to theism’s disconfirmation. This can be understood as countering the skeptical theist’s, “No Weight” argument.

    Now that I have tried in some length to set preliminary distinctions and frameworks, I will attempt to lay out my argument with concision.

    The argument will entail a sort of “Non-starter” skeptical theism, as referenced in Benton, Isaacs, and Hawthorne’s, “Evil and Evidence.” In this view, evil does not provide a prima facie reason against theism.

    For evil to be a major problem for Christian theism, it needs to cohere to the nuances of a Biblical worldview. And in this framework, an “Edenic world” without evil still lacks human fulfillment. If the ultimate goal in Christianity is reunion with the Creator – a return to right relations with God, then all those things that become distractions or impediments to this pursuit are bad; indeed, a form of evil. Thus, in considering the inconsistency of evil and goodness alike in their tendencies to attract or dissuade people from God, it seems likely that neither can serve as intrinsic indicators of prior probability regarding theism.

    As mentioned above, the crux issue for humanity within a Christian worldview seems to be the rejection of God. It seems reasonable at this point to classify pleasure and pain, this-worldly goodness and evil as equally liable for this sort of distraction and rejection. It is not universal that horrendous evils cause disbelief in God. There are many cases in which those who suffer unthinkable evils develop a deep faith. Helen Keller, for example, apparently perceived and pursued God despite her significant challenges in life; upon learning of Christianity, she is quoted as saying, “I always knew he was there, but I didn’t know His name!” Similarly, Louis Zamperini underwent mindboggling struggles and malevolent torture through his involvement in WWII and went on to embrace theism and offer reconciliation to his oppressors. And as mentioned earlier, it is apparent that experiences of this-worldly goodness do not overwhelmingly exceed those of suffering in their inclination toward theism. This can be briefly demonstrated by a reference to global trends in religion; self-identified association with theism is rapidly increasing in the Global South, surpassing that of the more-developed nations of the North, including America (p.91-96, God is Not One). These stats obviously represent many more complexities, but it suffices to say that pleasure and goodness does unequivocally equal positive prior probability for theism.

    All these things considered; I believe my argument looks something like this:

    1. If evil and this-worldly goodness do not necessarily entail intrinsic prior probabilistic values regarding theism, then a world completely absent of evil will not entail a higher probability for God.
    2. Evil and this-worldly goodness do not intrinsically entail prior probabilities for the existence of God.
    3. Therefore, the absence of evil is not evidence for God. (1,2 MP)
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