Direct continuation of: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 2: Omniscience
Recently, I’ve taken a strong liking to a series of YouTube videos by user TheraminTrees called “There are no gods”, that set out to explain what TheraminTrees used to believe about gods, and why he is an atheist now — including which gods he rejects, why, and with how much certainty. Thus I’ve decided to write a blog series of my own detailing his arguments in text, analyzing them, and pointing out where they can be made even stronger. The end result is a comprehensive and cumulative case for atheism.
Currently, I’m still analyzing the second video in his series, which is about the types of gods he can definitively reject because they are logically impossible. He does this by incompatibility arguments, which demonstrate that certain god concepts have logically contradictory properties — just like we can’t have a “square circle”, we can’t have an omnibenevolent god that allows the existence of Hell, an omnipotent god that is incapable of sin, a god that involves libertarian free will, an omniscient god who gets surprised or upset.
Another incompatibility argument that TheraminTrees advances is mentioned rather briefly in the video, but deserves a large amount of analysis: The Problem of Evil.
Those familiar with this site have seen me pound my head against this issue in a lengthy three part essay “The Great Problem of Evil”. Then, cl of The Warfare of Mental wrote a rebuttal, which I summarized in “Revisiting the Problem of Evil, Part I”, which was discontinued in favor of a debate that started strong and then fell apart for a variety of reasons unrelated to the Problem of Evil itself. In between all of that, I wrote a two-part conclusion series “Is God Good, Part I”.
Now, if I already wrote three metric crap tons of stuff on the Problem of Evil, why belabor the point further? The answer is simple: I messed up earlier, and I want to correct my mistakes. I need to set the record straight, because I misunderstood a lot of the key concepts earlier, and I now regularly see atheists misunderstand a lot of what is going on. So I’m going to start from the very beginning and defend my newer thesis: The Problem of Evil does undermine theism, but (probably) not for the reasons you think.
What is the Problem of Evil?
First, it probably helps to understand what the Problem of Evil is. Most broadly, the Problem of Evil is any incompatibility argument that demonstrates that God is incompatible with the existence of evil, usually taken to be a conflict between a property of omnibenevolence, all-lovingness, and/or moral perfection and something incompatible with that, like suffering.
However, this expands the Problem of Evil to include many potential incompatibilities, like the previously mentioned conflict between Hell and Omnibenevolence, and the not-yet-mentioned-here-but-well-dealt-with-elsewhere conflict between biblical malevolence and Omnibenevolence, Satan and Omnibenevolence, and perhaps even Divine Hiddenness and Omnibenevolence and Prayer and Omnibenevolence!
Typically, all of that is seen as overly broad. Thus, the Problem of Evil is often made specifically about an incompatibility between the suffering caused by nature and our fellow humans in today’s world, thus not counting Hell, Biblical events, Satan, an overly hidden God, and prayer.
The Typical Problem of Evil
The typical Problem of Evil usually works like this:
P1: “God” refers to an entity that is omniscient (knows everything that is logically possible to know), omnipotent (capable of doing anything that is logically possible), and omnibenevolent (will always act to prevent the existence of suffering).
P2: Suffering exists (consider the suffering of nonhuman animals and babies with birth defects).
C3: Therefore, God cannot exist.
However, since then multiple problems have been raised against this argument. First, the existence of theodicies have indicated that while we may suffer, our suffering is justified because we achieve a higher good, or because God couldn’t remove that suffering without causing greater or equal amounts of suffering to occur. Thus P2 is unjustified.
Many people have pointed out what these higher goods / unavoidable evils might be, and these are called theodicies.
Secondly, others have argued that we simply aren’t knowledgable enough to look at the world and infer why God acts the way he does — for all we know, God could be acting for a higher good that we just aren’t capable of understanding. This is called Skeptical Theism.
Lastly, Other people criticize P1 by saying that God is not actually omnibenevolent, and/or suggesting that omnibenevolence does not actually consist of “always acting to prevent the existence of suffering”.
The Reformulated Problem of Evil
In response to these arguments, we can modify our Problem of Evil. This argument is inspired by William Rowe’s 1979 paper “The Problem of Evil and Some Varieties of Atheism”. I’ve given each premise a cool name so that they’ll be easier to talk about, as I’ll be mentioning each premise quite frequently:
- Theological Premise: “God” refers to an entity that is omniscient (knows everything that is logically possible to know), omnipotent (capable of doing anything that is logically possible), and omnibenevolent (definition provided in the next premise).
- Omnibenevolence Premise: An “omnibenevolent” entity will always act to prevent the occurrence of any instance of suffering, unless (1) it is not within the entity’s power to do so, (2) such an action would cause the loss of a higher good, or (3) such an action would cause the realization of a greater or equal suffering.
- Seemingly Evil Premise: It seems as if at least one instance of suffering exists such that (1) it is within God’s power to remove, (2) such action would not cause the loss of a higher good, and (3) such an action would not cause the realization of a greater or equal suffering. (Consider the suffering of nonhuman animals and babies with birth defects.)
- Actual Evil Premise: It is indeed the case that at least one instance of suffering exists such that (1) it is within God’s power to remove, (2) such action would not cause the loss of a higher good, and (3) such an action would not cause the realization of a greater or equal suffering.
- Bridging Premise: If Seemingly Evil Premise is true, Actual Evil Premise is true.
- Conclusion: Therefore, from Theological Premise, Omnibenevolence Premise, Bridging Premise, and Actual Evil Premise, God does not exist.
This argument contains three key changes:
First, the Seemingly Evil Premise takes into account all theodices, and suggests that even if we take into account the existence of suggested higher goods (theodices), we still can find instances of suffering which look unjustified.
Second, we take into account Skeptical Theism by noting that there is a difference between suffering that just look like they’re unjustified and suffering that is actually unjustified when we take into account all the information that God knows that we do not. The Bridging Premise then argues that despite the Skeptical Theist argument, we are still in a position to know that some suffering truly exists. I really like making this bridge explicit and obviously stated, because most Problem of Evil arguments I’ve seen really try to hide this step. I feel it is important to be upfront about your argument’s potential weaknesses.
Third, to take into account people’s different ideas of definitions, the definition of benevolence has been separated into a second premise that needs independent defense.
Now, let’s look at some counterarguments in far more depth…
The Theological and Omnibenevolence Premises vs. Definitions
Not all concepts of god actually are considered to be omnibenevolent — certainly, gods like Loki and Hades never were, and the Wiccan gods also aren’t! Thus it’s very easy to deny Theological Premise with a different theology. While such theologies are in the minority, they still do exist today, and must be considered. However, all this means is that this incompatibility argument doesn’t rule out all gods, it merely rules out gods that have the incompatible properties.
Secondly, one might deny the Omnibenevolence Premise by suggesting that being omnibenevolent does not consist in stopping suffering, but rather in doing something else. Perhaps these people suggest that whatever God does is omnipotent because he is the very standard of morality himself! While I find this approach to morality unsatisfying in my long series starting with “The Meaning of Morality”, it seems enough to just grant them the failure of the Omnibenevolence Premise but deny they’ve done anything significant. Instead, they’ve merely gotten confused over definitions.
What I mean by this is just because you call something “omnibenevolent” doesn’t mean anything if the word refers to something else. While it would confuse people endlessly, there’s no rule of logic that says I can’t define “omnibenevolent” as synonymous with potato, or “that which always acts to bring about suffering in cruel ways”. All I’ve done is construct gods that simply lack the incompatible property.
Thus, I concede that for some god concepts, the Theological and/or Omnibenevolence Premises fail. Thus the Problem of Evil does not disprove the existence of all gods, or prove atheism. The Problem of Evil just cuts some potential god concepts away, and we’ll have to get the remainders in a later essay. However, we can continue for the majority of god concepts for which these premises are true. Carrying on…
The Seemingly Evil Premise vs. Theodicies
An even stronger shot is to deny Seemingly Evil Premise by suggesting that there does not seem to be any evil that (1) it is within God’s power to remove, (2) such action would not cause the loss of a higher good, and (3) such an action would not cause the realization of a greater or equal suffering. In response, some people argue that there are specific higher goods that can be identified which justify all suffering we observe.
Thus in order to demonstrate the Seemingly Evil Premise, we need to identify one instance of suffering for which no theodicy can succeed. Given that the amount of theodices are so numerous, I do not want to discuss them all here. Instead, I offer the following:
First, the two examples I picked (nonhuman animal suffering and the suffering of babies by birth defects) were handpicked specifically because they dodge nearly all popular theodices. Both examples involve no actions that arose by free will, contain no sin to be punished, are not necessitated by any fundamental physical laws, involve no opportunities for life lessons or character building, involve no opportunity to be drawn closer to God, involve suffering to complicated to meaningfully eliminate, and do not involve anyone going to heaven.
Second, I point out problems with each theodicy I mentioned in my opening statement of the Cl – Peter debate.
Third, I offer the comment section of this essay to ask me to deal with any theodicy you can think of that is relevant to my two examples and that you don’t think I have properly addressed elsewhere.
While that settles theodices for now, it’s also really important to note that some suffering can be justified even if it is entirely avoidable by humans, for God might have had to allow for the possibility of suffering, such as allowing us to freely choose choices that harm us, or allow the existence of criminals to give us something meaningful to try and stop. While I don’t think these theodices succeed at the end of the day, it indicates that it is not true that if God exists, removing any instance of suffering must make the everyone net worse off. Thus, I hereby recant all the essays I wrote in which I argued this position.
The Bridging Premise vs. Skeptical Theism
Now for the strongest attack against this argument, suggesting that Bridging Premise is false, and just because it looks like some suffering is needless to us doesn’t mean it actually is, because we’re not omniscient ourselves and thus don’t have the same grasps of higher goods as God does. This argument is made most famously in Steven Wykstra’s 1984 article “The Humean Obstacle to Evidential Arguments from Suffering”.
Basically, it goes like this: Consider looking in a garage, and looking around. After about five minutes of looking, you realize that (1) you don’t see any bears and (2) you don’t see any microbes. Thus you conclude that there is (1) no bears in the garage and (2) no microbes in the garage. Clearly (1) is valid while (2) is not, and the inference to unjustified suffering is far more like (2) than like (1).
The reasoning here lies in the difference between (1) and (2), because we have no reason to think that microbes are the kind of things that we can see, whereas bears are definitely the kind of thing we can see. Thus even though we can observe instances of suffering that seem extensively horrendous and are not justified by any theodicy that we can think of, does not mean that such suffering is truly unjustified, because we have no reason to think that the justification is the kind of thing we can see. God is just that much beyond us.
This makes sense, and it seems that Skeptical Theism is very damaging to the Bridging Premise — we simply do not have the knowledge to know whether these things are truly unjustified, or even say that the justification is unlikely. Thus we are arguing “I don’t see any reason God would allow this suffering”, and expecting that to matter, when really we aren’t in any position to draw a conclusion from our personal lack of insight, just like the person who doesn’t see germs.
Thus the Problem of Evil, as traditionally conceived, fails. However, if we take Skeptical Theism a bit further, perhaps we can break it… In the next essay, we’ll aim to do just that.
Continued in: TheraminTrees’s Atheism, 4: Skeptical Theism
Author’s Note: This essay was first revised on March 27 in response to comments given in the comments section. The essay was then again revised on May 13, in response to Cl’s essay “Why I Said Skeptical Theism is For the Birds”. Because of the added length, I cut this essay into two halves.
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