Showing posts with label evidence. Show all posts
Showing posts with label evidence. Show all posts

Monday, 2 November 2015

Why the Problem of Evil Creates a Problem

Undoubtedly the problem of evil is the most viscerally appealing, intuitive and ancient argument against the existence of an omniperfect God. In its oldest form, the argument from the existence of evil seems to have been adequately addressed. It went something like this:

(1) If God exists, evil does not.
(2) But evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

The issue with this form of the argument is that it is too easy to show that the claim made in premise 1 is too strong; any plausible theodicy shows loopholes in the idea that God and evil cannot coexist. They standardly point to some good that could only be attained by allowing some evil, such as free will (part of Augustinian theodicy) or the importance of evil in spiritual growth (Irenaean theodicy). Some evil is a consequence of free will, which is important enough to tolerate that evil. Hence, it cannot be true that the existence of God is disproved by evil, since clearly God has reason to allow some evil.

The more modern and poignant form of the argument from evil is the evidential argument where evil is presented as something which lessens the probability of the existence of God rather than outright makes it impossible. These sorts of probabilistic arguments seem too nebulous to me to consider them seriously, so instead I will refer to the logical problem of evil with a more precise first and second premise: the argument from gratuitous evil.

(1) If God exists, gratuitous evil does not.
(2) Gratuitous evil does exist.
(3) Therefore, God does not exist.

Here, gratuitous evil is defined as evil that is not necessary to achieve some greater good. Explaining evil as required for some good is obviously not going to work here, but it does at least seem like gratuitous evil exists. Natural evils such as disease or natural disasters seem, in at least some proportion, to be gratuitous. Now, I think the theist has a very good counter at this point: just because it seems unclear to us why some particular evil exists does not mean that no such reason exists. We should be sceptical of our capacity to see the reason for evil if only because from out own experience we know that hindsight has shown particular events in our own lives which we evaluated as negative at the time to have redeeming positive qualities. Whoever had a day's sickness when the World Trade Centre went down, for instance, probably was not too pleased to be sick at the time and yet was rather pleased afterwards to know that they avoided a terrorist attack. God, however, has infinite foresight, so can see all the effects of any event and would be able to evaluate whether the good outweighs the bad.

This position is commonly known as sceptical theism and I think it is essentially correct. However, it implicitly contains ramifications which are disastrous for the religious person if not adequately addressed for it says something of the nature of God: God is clearly willing to tolerate evil for the sake of good. That is the implicit assumption of sceptical theism. This means that, in some sense, God is a consequentialist with regards to God's own actions (even if not for anyone else). What if God lies to us, or at least, allows some untruth to be said by some authoritative representative? Perhaps it could be responded that God would have no reason to do so - but sceptical theism has already postulated quite reasonably that God could have reasons which are beyond our comprehension or knowledge for allowing evil, therefore, God could allow such falsehood in divine revelation.

This in turn undermines the reliability of divine revelation as a whole, for the whole of sceptical theism is the statement that the absence of evidence for a reason does not imply evidence for the absence of a reason when it comes to what God allows or not. The philosopher Stephen Law goes further and argues that sceptical theism is a downwards spiral to the pits of scepticism, since all our faculties could be faulty if God had reason to deceive us, and for all we know God does in fact have such a reason. Law claims that full bodied scepticism is the logical end of sceptical theism, and whilst I disagree, it is irrelevant to the weaker claim which is that God's reliability is undermined.

Some theists reject sceptical theism because it leads to such consequences. To reject sceptical theism, however, is to claim that we must know the reasons behind God's actions, which seems patently false in general and more certainly false from a Christian perspective: the theodicy of the book of Job, for instance, seems essentially to assert sceptical theism. The unfathomable will of God, in turn, is cited by St Paul in his epistle to the Romans as the reason that salvation comes only to those whom God has elected. So sceptical theism, from the point of view of Christianity, seems true.

What can the Christian respond? I can only see one way out: faith. Let me be clear, however, by what I mean when using the word. I do not mean to say at this moment that Christians should believe God because they should trust that God could not have reasons to lie to them. That avenue is expressly ruled out by sceptical theism as a priori. What I mean is rather more inductive: based on the relationship to God as a person, Christians should bridge the gap and trust God. This is done every day by humans everywhere; we trust people who we know could be lying because we think we know them well enough to determine that they are not, in actual fact, lying. I believe this position at least safeguards the possibility of Christians considering divine revelation to be trustworthy. Once that is accepted it becomes a self-protecting belief because the Bible makes claims about God to the effect that God cannot lie, which can be interpreted as the claim that God could not have reasons to lie in actual fact.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Why assume the Bible?

In the last entry, I just took the Christian tradition of thinking that the Bible is authoritative for granted. Most people raised Christian probably have a fairly easy time assuming Biblical authority, but I do not. So how do I understand the Bible?

Starting with the Old Testament, we see the ancient Israelites struggling to understand God. From Genesis, where ancient near Eastern myths were altered in light of the theological truths to be explored (monotheistic theology, a perfectly moral God, with omnipotence) it is clear that the Jews (not yet with this name) were having a very hard time coming to grips with how a perfect God could do any of the things that appear so readily, so abundant, but also quite decidedly bad. The beginning (well, Genesis 2-3, since Genesis 1 is about there being only one God, one Creator and all other things being simply created) shifts the blame from divine shoulders to human ones, and at the end, in Genesis 50, Joseph explains how the evils of being almost killed, then sold in to slavery, ultimately resulted in God's plan being fulfilled - "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives."

On and on we see Israel gaining understanding of the divine. Yes, God does seem to play a large role in this, and a lot of the Old Testament, though not a majority, contains alleged quotations. Mixed in with all the divine revelation, however, is a very human tone, and very human passages. God's word? In part, but not the whole.

"Well, you can say that, but it just means you are becoming judge over Holy Scripture, keeping what you want and disregarding what you do not!", I hear some people exclaiming. This is a mostly baseless claim. If I were a Jew, then it would surely be a very pointed comment, but the Bible is about revealing God, and Christians understand the God was ultimately and with finality revealed in person, in the flesh. We now have the complete revelation without the noise of human revisionism.

The other side of the spectrum might then exclaim "Ah, but who knows whether Jesus actually said these things?", and the answer is simple. We do. Not because of some pragmatic "God would not leave us alone in the dark" argument, but because of the study of history, and how that shows beyond reasonable doubt that the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are quite reliable as historical documents at the very least. We can have great assurance that, for the most part, Jesus of Nazareth did say the things that are collected there, and if you are a Christian, then most likely you can join me in also believing that many of the miracles (though perhaps not all) were, indeed, done by Jesus, God the Son, whilst he walked the Earth.

 I may, at some time, address some popular arguments for Biblical inerrancy, but this at least is clear: as critical historians, we can figure out a lot of what Jesus said. And from there, if one is (or decides to become) a Christian, we can live our lives in light of that.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

On the Foundations of Judeo-Christian Thought

It would be very arrogant indeed if I, a student of a discipline far from studies of religion or ancient and classical era history, wrote a small entry on a blog that I thought should be regarded as the correct understandings of the foundations of this system of beliefs in all its diversity. I do want to write, however, a short piece detailing what the foundation isn't - the Bible. Most Christian are actually not Protestants, and some of the pillars of Christian thought in the 21st century are the Sacred Scriptures (meaning the Old and New Testaments collected in either the Protestant or Catholic Bibles), Sacred Tradition, Reason and the Church (or Magisterium).

My own church (a rather lovely one based in a suburb of Brisbane, in Australia) is part of the Protestant tradition which holds to the doctrine of "Sola Scriptura" (Latin for "Only Scripture"). My opinion on this doctrine is implied in how I described Protestantism; it is a tradition. The Bible itself, to the best of my knowledge, does not claim to be the sole authority. There are questions it poses but does not answer. There are references to outside sources of information. There are even references to tradition in a positive way! The epistles of the apostles are often in the form of logical arguments, or at least reasoned arguments. Jesus speaks in parables which are, in his own words, to obscure the meaning of his words (why he does this can be the subject of another entry), the apostles use apostolic authority...meaning that overall, tradition has a place in the Bible, reason has its place, Magisterial authority has its place and really, "only the Bible has the truth" is profoundly unbiblical.

So what does the Bible say about authority? Well, as seen in yesterday's entry, the founding figure of Christianity claimed to be, in and of himself, the truth. This same figure's parting words according to the gospel of St Matthew are "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." There are references to authority (of Jesus), a command to make disciples and to teach. This is not quite the same as "give them a book and let them read it". Indeed, that would not have made sense for many many years - canonization was not for a few centuries, and not until the 16th century did the reformation occur that came up with this doctrine that the Bible was the only authority.

Where is the pillar of Christianity, then? It is not in a series of documents dating back millennia. At least, Jesus does not seem to think so. The foundation of Christianity is Christ. And unlike what many evangelical fundamentalists seem to hold to, when Paul writes about what would falsify Christian belief, it is clear that the final authority is not in the Bible. It is in  Christ's resurrection.

One final remark - yesterday I wrote about the peculiar and striking claim made by Jesus, as recorded by St John's gospel. In that same chapter, he says "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves."

What then can Christianity hold on to? Where can we draw the line between fact and fiction? On the basis of the evidence for the works of Jesus, most notably the resurrection.