The Problem of Evil, Reconsidered

Most of you are familiar with the Problem of evil — an ancient theological question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with that of a deity who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent.

We’ve written about it a few times, but our favorite is Charles Darwin, Francisco Ayala, and the Problem of Evil, in which we wrote about Francisco Ayala, the former Dominican priest who is now a biology professor, who says that Darwin’s theory explains the existence of evil and takes God off the hook, so “Natural selection is Darwin’s gift to science, his gift to religion,”

Today we found a totally new discussion of the issue in the Deseret News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s published in Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah. Their headline is The existence of evil as evidence for God. This should be interesting.

It was written by Daniel Peterson, “a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU [Brigham Young University].” The newspaper has an active comments section. Here are some excerpts from the article, with bold font added by us for emphasis:

For many unbelievers — both those who regret their inability to believe and those who celebrate their lack of faith as a liberation — the problem of evil, as it is called, is the most powerful reason to reject God. After all, they argue, if unjustifiable evil exists (as it surely seems to), then either God is unable to stop it or he chooses not to stop it. In other words, he’s either not all-powerful or he’s not all-good.

Yes, that’s the problem. Peterson says:

[Instead of presenting the Mormon view] I intend to introduce an argument advanced by the Protestant philosopher Stephen Davis, of Claremont Graduate University. With considerable cheekiness and an implied reference to the problem of evil at its very worst, Davis labels his case “the genocide argument for the existence of God.” In other words, he seeks to turn the anti-theistic argument from evil into a pointer toward the divine.

That’s a complete flip-flop. Is it possible? Peterson tells us:

As he formulates it in his 2016 book Rational Faith: A Philosopher’s Defense of Christianity (Veritas Books), Davis’ argument presumes that certain things (such as compassion, keeping promises and telling the truth) are objectively right, while certain other things (e.g., lying, cruelty, murder and certainly genocide) are morally wrong. They’re not mere matters of personal taste, comparable to liking or not liking broccoli.

Apparently, Davis says right and wrong are objectively determinable. That contrasts with the preaching of people like Hambo, who say we can’t know such things without reference to the bible. Peterson continues:

Here’s how Davis’ argument goes, in his own words:

1. Genocide is a departure from the way that things ought to be.

2. If genocide is a departure from the way that things ought to be, then there is a way that things ought to be.

3. If there is a way that things ought to be, then there is a design plan for things.

4. If there is a design plan for things, then there is an author of the plan, a designer.

5. This designer we can call God.

Your Curmudgeon never studied theology, but that seems a bit feeble. Let’s read on:

Davis admits upfront that this argument doesn’t even attempt to demonstrate everything that Christians believe about God. … Still, within its limits, it’s an argument worth serious consideration. As Davis observes, “there can be no such thing as an authorless design plan, a plan for how things ought to be that follows merely from how things are.”

Would it be a trivial response to say that because we observe how gravity works, it naturally follows that we ought not get drunk and dance on the edge of the roof? Ah, Peterson has a response to that:

Science is a powerful tool for discovering how the world works and what it is. But nothing that science can discover about how the world is or how it works tells us anything about how the world ought to be. Science can split the atom, but it cannot, as science, tell us whether to build a bomb with that knowledge or to construct a nuclear reactor to light a city.

Huh? Do we need a divine plan to tell us whether to construct a nuclear power station? Skipping to the end, Peterson says:

The problem of evil, in other words, points both ways. It can cast doubt on God, but it may also imply his existence.

That was interesting. Did you find it persuasive, dear reader?

Copyright © 2017. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

add to del.icio.usAdd to Blinkslistadd to furlDigg itadd to ma.gnoliaStumble It!add to simpyseed the vineTailRankpost to facebook

. AddThis Social Bookmark Button . Permalink for this article

17 responses to “The Problem of Evil, Reconsidered

  1. What problem of evil!?!? I’ve never seen a problem with evil. 1st evil is nothing but a rating of your feelings toward some act.
    you being killed may be evil, me killing you in self-defense is just fine!
    The buyBull has no problem with evil…it says gawd made it, deal!!!
    the only group are xtians cause they claim their psychotic gawd is all good, but his book o’BS claims he created evil!! Just accept your gawd is an ahole and be happy!

  2. Eric Lipps

    As he formulates it in his 2016 book Rational Faith: A Philosopher’s Defense of Christianity (Veritas Books), [Stephen] Davis’ argument presumes that certain things (such as compassion, keeping promises and telling the truth) are objectively right, while certain other things (e.g., lying, cruelty, murder and certainly genocide) are morally wrong. They’re not mere matters of personal taste, comparable to liking or not liking broccoli.

    I don’t know about most of the other things, but compassion has been demonstrated even in animals, at least in simple form. As for liking broccoli, the “personal taste” involved isn’t moral but physical, so the comparison is bogus.

    Here’s how Davis’ argument goes, in his own words:
    1. Genocide is a departure from the way that things ought to be.
    2. If genocide is a departure from the way that things ought to be, then there is a way that things ought to be.
    3. If there is a way that things ought to be, then there is a design plan for things.
    4. If there is a design plan for things, then there is an author of the plan, a designer.
    5. This designer we can call God.

    Point one is a value judgment which simply assumes that there actually is a “way things ought to be” apart from what human beings (or, theoretically, other sentient beings) decide. But is there? And if there is, does that necessarily imply that this “way” is part of a design plan drawn up by a “designer we can call God”? (You could call such a designer a rutabaga, but that doesn’t matter if He/She/It doesn’t exist.) Or is it instead simply a feature of the universe in the same way as gravity?

    “Oh, but,” creationists might answer, “who designed gravity? How does it happen that gravity is just right for life to exist?” This argument, as I’ve written elsewhere, rests on the assumption that the natural universe must be as it is because we must exist. But that’s another assumption, one which turns causality on its head. The reality is that we exist because the laws and constants of nature are as they are, and that if they were different and we didn’t exist, the universe could go on perfectly well without us. It might look different with different laws or physical constants, but so what?

  3. “If there is a way that things ought to be, then there is a design plan for things.”
    This is weak. First, it seems entirely possible that “the way things ought to be” stems from human feelings and experience, which might well be based in evolutionary development. No design plan needed.
    Second, Hitler and his followers, including numerous well-educated and (apparently) discerning people, thought that genocide of the Jews was clearly what “ought to be.” Does this then mean that there is a design plan for such a program?

  4. Dave Luckett

    If the premise “Genocide is a departure from the way things ought to be” is accepted, the rest follows. The problem is, as Captain Blackadder explained, that there is a teeny little problem with that premise:

    viz It’s bollocks.

    We have no basis for believing that we know the way things ought to be. We know what is most comfortable and safest for us, but that’s no indication. What is best for us may very well NOT be the way things ought to be. Who are we to think otherwise? The Universe is apparently completely indifferent to our survival. That’s the way things are. We might as well call that “the way things ought to be”, since we have absolutely no say whatsoever in it.

    But there’s a problem even beyond that one. Not only do we not know how “things ought to be”, we cannot know that things ought to be any particular way. That word “ought” assumes direction, purpose, intent – so it is hardly surprising that the proposer claims to see it. This is a trick called “begging the question” – which means assuming as a premise that which is to be proven. It’s merely a form of circular reasoning, at bottom.

  5. It’s a good thing you’ve never studied theology because it seems to do strange things to one’s logic and reasoning.

    I like William Lane Craig’s reasoning re. evil: since God is omnibenevolent, anything he does it ethical by definition. So if a tsunami kills a few thousand children and God lets it happen, it’s just ethical and totally fine. (But not if we do it, obviously).

  6. Dave Luckett

    “The problem of evil” is a problem for monotheism, and there has never been a satisfactory resolution. The Bible’s answer is found mostly in the Book of Job, where we are told, basically, that God does what He does, and suck it up, princess. That is, God is not omnibenevolent. Why, then, should He be worshiped and praised? Weren’t you listening? Because He’s God, stupid!

    Atheists are spared the problem, but that’s no reason for dismissing it as not being there. Monotheists are saddled with it, and it’s fun to remind them of it now and then.

  7. Michael Fugate

    As soon as Davis comes up with a foolproof means of determining what ought to be, he can get back to us. Until then, he’s not much use.

  8. gravity is just right for life
    But we are also told that thermodynamics is wrong for life (irreducible complexity, zero probability of the eye, etc.).
    anything that God does is right
    Which means that whatever God says is right, whether or not it is true.

  9. Michael Fugate

    Isn’t the key not to think too deeply. It reminds me of that old hymn “Jesus loves me” which was supposed to be a poem for a dying child, but why let a child die? How is that supposed to be love?

  10. The problem I see with the argument is that many things that we think of today as evil, or at least not the way things ought to be, are portrayed in the bible in positive ways. That would include wholesale killing of women and children in conquered villages simply for being in the way, inflicting cruel punishments including painful deaths for minor offenses, killing innocent children to make a point (now celebrated during passover), human sacrifice, wholesale acceptance of slavery, and so on. The bible is loaded with what we feel is evil, but in the bible it is not described as evil.

    That to me is the problem of evil – the “designer” seems to be more evil than we are. Ergo, our since of what is evil must come from another place, which in my opinion is as a natural consequence of highly social animals in evolved societies.

  11. Not convinced.” If there is a way things ought to be then there is a design”???. How did the author make that leap of faith? Ah ! Faith…
    Science provides many good things. It has also produced many evil things.
    Bad stuff proves there is a supernatural entity??? Really ?

  12. “3. If there is a way that things ought to be, then there is a design plan for things.”

    #3 fails for multiple reasons. There are far more than 100,000 different theistic religions in the world (45,000+ different sects alone are Christian), and they cannot agree on how things “aught to be”. Hence there are *many* conflicting “design plans” using their own definitions. How do any of these “aught to be-isms” actually differ from fairy tales? “Ought to be-ism” is also a logical fallacy well known since at least since Hume’s time.

    “4. If there is a design plan for things, then there is an author of the plan, a designer.”

    #4 fails because the author of that pabulum fails to recognize that he has not shown what his imagined “ultimate design” actually is. Does it include stoning a disobedient child? Also note that anyone can imagine anything and they automatically become the “designer” of their imaginary thoughts.

    “5. This designer we can call God.”

    #5 is of course a non-sequitur since the unshown ultimate design that was imagined in this specific case was actually invented by a dim bulb human named Daniel Peterson. Is Daniel Peterson “God”, like every other “designer” of the imaginary? I guess that some religion professors in Utah don’t even have to understand critical thinking or even any form of logical reasoning. Religious Apologetics has always suffered from its original foundation of being fully dedicated to obscurantism. They have consistently pitched their arguments at the terminally uninformed because no rational informed person could believe any of this “higher superstition” poop.

  13. One design is the design of mathematics and logic.
    Yet I think that most people would agree that there is no designer of that design.

  14. Aaaaaand that was pretty much, word for word, the response that was formulating between my ears, as of Davis’ argument. Minus the bit about Blackadder, which I had forgotten; inexcusable. Must now go back and watch it all over again. Will I ever get this dissertation written?

  15. Charles Deetz ;)

    He forgot #6 ….

    Since there is a god who designed things, he is the source of evil.

  16. As several have already pointed out nr 3 is the ‘weakest link’ by far.
    2, 4 and 5 are also imminently arguable, but 3 is a complete non-sequitur.
    The ought to be is very well explainable in a social, gregarious species. Nothing says it is or even ought to be absolute. And -again as pointed out earlier- genocide is not even a departure from ‘ought to be’ in the Tenach (OT) . The whole thing is laughable. Why does this guy not get a ‘Buffoon Award’?

  17. @Dave Luckett

    “which means assuming as a premise that which is to be proven.”

    Bingo!

    You just saved me no small bit of time, squinting and pecking.

    We never get past step 1.