So after the debate having floundered for a week of being postponed and with two of our three judges dropping out, the debate is now over. Cl has posted his explanation for what happened in “DBT 01 Update: The Show Must Go On”, in “DBT 01: The Official Verdict”, and in the comments section of “Cl – Peter Debate: Postponed Until Future Notice”. Cl is now calling for a restart in DBT 02: A Call For Topics, Judges”.
While I’m kind of happy to have a shiny “win”, I see it as an entirely phyrric victory that just shows a failure on all our parts. This is not something I wanted to happen. Here, I’m going to take my time to explain my side of the story and try to give the interested parties insight into how this blew up.
The way I see it, this debate derailed because of five factors: (1) I entered the Problem of Evil with two misconceptions about how to debate, (2) there was confusion over the definition of needless suffering, (3) there was confusion over how to make the leap over an argument from ignorance to which Cl was insistant the leap was impossible, (4) there was disagreement from the judges about wanting to judge a debate that involved a question about whether evolution is a true theory and whether Genesis took place as literal history, and (5) there was a final confrontation between Cl and Andrés over the validity of the Problem of Evil inference.
When the dust settled, we only had one remaining judge and no idea what to debate. This is what took so long to sort out, and what still hasn’t been sorted out. All told, it turned out to be the perfect storm of controversy, and I don’t think the debate would have derailed unless all five factors were present! That being said, let me describe these in a bit more detail.
Contributing Factor #1: My Two Subtle Fallacies
Cl and I agreed by email to debate the proposition “Needless suffering exists”, and I would hold the burden of proof to defend this statement. We chose this over Cl defending with burden of proof the proposition “God is all-good” because we thought it would be more interesting. My personal goals for the topic was finding a way to debate the Problem of Evil without having to talk about what “all-good” meant. I’ve gotten far too bogged down in debating the meaning of morality that I didn’t want to do it anymore, at least for awhile.
However, it appeared right away there was a confusion, because Cl notated our agreed topic as “needless suffering exists, ergo belief in the Abrahamic God is unjustified”. This seemed like I not only had to prove needless suffering existed, but also prove that the Abrahamic God is benevolent in a way that he would prevent needless suffering, something I thought was a difficult and not very fun task. We talked about clarifying our definition of needless suffering a bit more, but we never got around to it. That’s both our faults.
I then went in saying that needless suffering was “anything that causes pain to an entity capable of feeling it and is not logically required in order to realize a higher benefit for that entity or other entities”. I messed up with that definition in two ways, one of which I realized prior to editing but didn’t fix, and one of which I realize now.
First Problem: I wrote “should no needless suffering exist, we are in the best of all possible worlds and any attempt to remove suffering would make us worse off because we would lose the associated outweighing benefit and decreasing the net benefit to all people.” But this is not so, since it could be that God had to allow the possibility of suffering (such as because of Free Will), but the suffering itself was still needless in the sense that it could be avoided. I meant to take out that sentence as being fallacious, but I forgot when I was editing. I regret that because I think it added to the confusion.
Second Problem: I was originally defending “logically required” because God is omnipotent, and therefore can do anything that is logically possible, and therefore could realize higher benefits directly unless there was some direct logical connection between the two. But as Andrés pointed out to me in email, this is too strong: it could be the case that God could either realize TerribleThing1 or TerribleThing2 in order to realize HigherGood3 — assuming TerribleThing1 and TerribleThing2 are equally bad, there would be no preference between the two, yet the either-or choice between the two meant that neither was logically required, since the other one could have taken place instead.
Contributing Factor #2: The Confusion Over Proposition #2
I don’t think these fallacies weakened my argument that substantially, but it did make our start rather confusing. So let’s say that we replaced our language with the following three terms:
1-Suffering: This kind of suffering, if it exists, was absolutely unavoidable. There is no way we could have the higher benefits (outweighing goods) that we do, unless this suffering exists. If God were to remove a suffering of this type, people would be net worse off.
2-Suffering: This kind of suffering, if it exists, was avoidable for humans but not for God. Think of murder — humans could choose to refrain from murder completely, thus all murders are avoidable and thus needless. Yet, God still had to allow Free Will, as the theodicy goes, and thus had no choice but to allow the possibility of murder, even if this results in actual murder. If God were to remove a suffering of this type, people would be net worse off.
3-Suffering: This kind of suffering, if it exists, is avoidable even for God. This is the kind of suffering that God can remove and people will not be net worse off, because no higher benefits / outweighing goods would be lost at all, and humans would be net better off if God removed this kind of suffering.
When I was referring to “needless suffering”, I meant to refer to 3-Suffering. Yet, I think a lot of people saw me as referring to 2-Suffering, and my mistake was not clearly drawing the distinction between 2-Suffering and 1-Suffering. This is why I see the statement “a benevolent god would not allow any needless suffering” to be tautological. I see the definition of benevolent as being “would always act to make people net better off”, and if 3-Suffering exists, then this is not the case. This is why I didn’t have much inference in defending a statement I see as tautological — what more can I say, but this?
This distinction is also why Cl’s claims about me believing “stubbed toes implies atheism” and Cosmic Coddlers are silly — it’s clear that these kinds of suffering are at best 2-Suffering, and that we would be worse off wit a Cosmic Coddler god because we don’t want to be coddled in that way! We do need to suffer in certain ways to secure certain outweighing benefits. It’s just that, on my view, I don’t see birth defects and nonhuman animal suffering as this kind of coddling. Birth defects and stubbed toes are not directly analogous, even if somehow birth defects do end up being 2-Suffering.
I’m going to have to ask Cl if he agrees, but what I saw him doing was going in wanting to prove that all suffering is 1-suffering, realizing this was unbiblical and conceding that 2-Suffering exists, but at no point ever conceding that 3-Suffering exists. This is why I think he says his concession was “silly”, and why I’m inclined to agree. If 3-Suffering exists and God was capable of removing it, yet did not, then I see the benevolent God as impossible. I’d be interested in seeing if and how Cl disagrees.
Contributing Factor #3: Insistance Over the Argument From Ignorance
Another confusion is whether I was advancing an evidential or a logical Problem of Evil, with a few people accusing me of “smuggling the logical POE in the back door”. I promise that this wasn’t anything I was doing intentionally, but resulted from confusing 2-Suffering with 3-Suffering. My POE is definitely evidential and emphatically not logical.
It’s clear that not all suffering is logically incompatible with God, for it’s simple to say that there was some outweighing good God was acting for that necessitated him to allow this suffering — any 1-Suffering or 2-Suffering would fit in this category. Thus in order for us to advance a logical POE, we would have to prove the nonexistence of 3-Suffering as logically impossible.
This is not a claim that I think can be made. There will always be some doubt over whether a given instance of suffering is truly of type 3-Suffering, even if it looks like it. To make it clear, I would advance an argument nearly identical of philosopher William Rowe’s:
P: We cannot see a set of outweighing goods that justify the existence of birth defects, nonhuman animal suffering, and the Bubonic Plague.
Q: There is no set of outweighing goods that justify the existence of birth defects, nonhuman animal suffering, and the Bubonic Plague.
What I like about Rowe’s argument is it is completely upfront about the jump that is being made. P is defended by pointing to the failure of all theodicies, but the truth of P does not prove Q. Instead, it could be that P actually is false, we just don’t know how. Thus the jump to Q can only be done probabilistically.
Some of these jumps work. For example, if we don’t see a bear in our closet, there probably is no bear in our closet — that works. It could be that the bear is hiding very well, or that there was a bear that we were too deluded to see, but if we generally trust our eyesight, the nonexistence of a bear in our closet is nearly certain.
However, some of these jumps don’t work. For example, if we don’t see any planets with life, we cannot say there probably are no planets with life — the inference from the part of the galaxy we can see is not reliable as generalized to the remainder of the galaxy, or to all galaxies. We just aren’t in the kind of situation to know about planets with life, even if we are in the situation to know about closets with bears.
The difference between these jumps is not something I addressed in my opening statement, and I’m interested in exploring our actual rationale for jumping between P and Q. This is why I wanted to debate more the argument from ignorance, but Cl wasn’t letting me have it. Some of it may be because of our mutual confusion, but in our emails, Cl was saying things like “I showed that Peter’s claim *REALLY WAS* based on nothing but incredulity. Game over. Done deal. Put another quarter in.” and “Yours is an argument from incredulity. I don’t know what else to say. I’m not going to sit here and go ‘yes it is’ / ‘no it’s not’ back and forth with you” and even going as far as saying that I’ve “shown a complete disregard for rationality, integrity and evidence”.
Cl makes it sound like any attempt of mine to mount a response would just be not worth his time. I’m glad Cl found a claim to be so certain in, but I don’t find that certainty warranted. I don’t want to play the “blame Cl for everything” game, but I don’t know why Cl wasn’t even interested in what I had to say in response. Perhaps it’s a confusion on my part, like how it looks like I’m not interested in what Cl has to say with what I allege to be a tautology?
Contributing Factor #4: The Creationism Backout
Cl’s rebuttal provides some reasons to not accept P by giving some possible outweighing goods that would explain my examples. One of these is that all suffering is covered by the an elaborate Free Will Defense: God gave humans the free choice to sin and initiate the Fall, humans freely chose to sin, and even a benevolent God has to allow us to live with the consequences of our own actions. In Cl’s words “sin caused death, suffering, and so-called ‘natural evil’”.
I personally think there are quite many holes in this response, but the biggest was that this response required the Fall and Genesis to take place literally in actual history, and not be any sort of metaphor as many theologians seem to say. Additionally, it required that no nonhuman animals were suffering prior to the creation of animals, which required Creationism and an outright denial of evolution. In emails, Cl clarified that he “does not deny evolution”, but is “an agnostic WRT to the age of the Earth” and has “come to the conclusion that belief in evolution and YEC is respectable”.
This made Andrés and Matt initially want to back out from the debate, because they saw the debate as hinging on an evolution vs. creationism debate, and saw creationism as fringe lunacy not worth debating or engaging with. Cl then said they were too biased to be judges.
Personally, I wasn’t sure who to side with here: I agree with evolution being overwhelmingly proven and wish we could move to a time where that was universally accepted as settled, but I also agree that we shouldn’t shun debate just because of this wish. I also thought there were many ways I could rebut this theodicy even assuming YEC is true! I did finally secure the judges back with the promise that our debate would not center around that. And I still would like an opportunity to do so, because I feel that Cl’s Fall Theodicy can be strongly deflated, and then we’re left with no answer to birth defects outside of the Argument from Ignorance kerfluffle.
This lasted until Matt made this statement public saying “OTOH, if the rest of the debate is going to center around ‘the Fall’ of mankind from a perfect state of nature in Eden, I will certainly bow out” to which Cl replied “Cool, I’ll count you out then”.
Contributing Factor #5: Arguing With Andrés
While Andrés was definitely not excited about the prospects of the debate involving Creationism, he ultimately dropped out as judge for other reasons. This involved a debate over the nature of the argument from ignorance in inferring Q from P. Andrés argued that this inference was logically valid provided that we’re in an epistemic situation to make the inference, but said we were not in such a situation. Cl argued that this inference was logically invalid. From what I understood, their positions were actually identical.
I’ll have to ask Cl again, but I’m pretty sure he accepted that the inference could be valid in some situations (bear in the closet), just not others, and that the determining factor was the epistemic situation — just as Andrés said. But then the discussion got pretty heated and it left with Andrés leaving out because he said Cl had a “inability to keep your cool in debates and refrain from getting emotionally worked up”. I’ll leave Andrés to comment on this more if he wishes.
UPDATE: Andrés elaborates in the comments that while he was treated poorly and childishly by Cl, he backed out primarily because of the implied creationism (see reason #4).
So I’m a bit wary and hesitant, but on final analysis I think I’m willing to stay in the debate a bit longer. I’m a bit frustrated with how Cl treated the judges and I, but I understand in the heat of the moment people will say things that aren’t ideally tactful, and then just shift to call us ninnies for not being able to handle it. On the whole, I see Cl as an intelligent person that I wish to continue to engage with, even if I don’t agree with his conduct all the time. We’ve had good talks in the past, and he is responsible for a lot of changes in how I view the Problem of Evil.
First, as an editorial comment and personal note, I don’t really enjoy discussing the Problem of Evil. I also think that the POE is limited by being a reason for disbelief in only certain gods, not all gods. Lastly, even if the POE is popular, I don’t personally see it as compelling as many other arguments against Christianity or for atheism.
I think it touches on too many other issues that really need to be settled first, such as the nature of free will, what it means to be benevolent, how we can know what kind of actions God will actually take, and hell… whether or not evolution is true. Perhaps these could be topics for the next debate instead of the entire POE!
Perhaps it’s better framed as wondering how we actually know God is omniscient or omnibenevolent — the failure to make the claim seems to cross both ways, so it just seems to be whoever is crushed by the burden of proof loses. Even if a God is said to exist, can we actually demonstrate that God is good like people say he is?
Secondly, I’d also like to comment on the two restrictions we put on ourselves during this debate: the word count and the no-comment rule. Both ended up being far more restrictive than they were worth. It also didn’t help that Cl ended up with a word disadvantage — I promise that wasn’t something sneaky or sly that I did, it just kind of happened. I guessed that I would need some extra words to introduce and close the debate.
That being said, I’d like to see the debates as a bit more fluid and dynamic as they turned out to be, even if this doesn’t lend itself well to a publishable format. There’s just very little truth-finding-relevant reason why we shouldn’t be able to spend as many words as we want if we think it will better get to the bottom of things, and there’s no reason why we can’t continue the conversation in the comment box if that’s how we feel it would take us. I don’t even mind if people give ammo to my opponent, because it just means he’s more likely to find something closer to the truth! I’d rather defeat the strongest argument, not just the one my opponent happens to have.
Third, I’d like to mention a way we can avoid repeating some of this failure: be very clear about what is being debated upfront, and how a significant victory is reached. I renew my suggestion that the debate participants agree to write a joint statement beforehand outlining the two positions, and outlining what each person would accept as a victory by the other.
Lastly, I would like to say that I really enjoyed what the judges had to say. It was great hearing feedback about my argumentation and having people point out where I had succeeded and failed. I also really enjoyed the conversation that was sparked here and elsewhere. I definitely learned a lot, and I think now that my perspective is out in the open, Cl and others may have something to go on to figure out where the next debate should head.
Hope that helps!
Followed up in: Cl, Bubonic Plagues, and Bibles, Part I
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