Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rom 1 reply, 3: The "god is Imaginary"/ "God delusion" agenda and the problem of evil vs good

(Cf. parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

As we continue to examine the God is Imaginary (GII, hereafter) agenda of loaded questions, let us notice when the web sites and videos apparently first came out: 2007, a little after prof Richard Dawkins' published the well-known (but unfortunately poorly researched) anti-God screed, The God Delusion. In fact, the GII questions are little more than a re-packaging and boiling down of key points from that ill-researched, intellectually irresponsible, over-wrought and unfair book.

So, as a preliminary point, we should take note of how the senior champion of the New Atheism movement was quietly but thoroughly taken apart by professor John Lennox of Oxford University, twice: 1, 2 (and of how, thereafter, he refuses to publicly defend his book by debating say a William Lane Craig).  The video of the first of the two debates should therefore be quite illuminating and balancing:

Now, to save time, let us cluster the questions that most directly raise or imply the question of the problem of evil (while cleverly ducking the more basic problem of good):
[2]: Why are there so many starving people in our world?

6: Why do bad things happen to good people?

[3]: Why does God demand the death of so many innocent people in the Bible?

5: Why is God such a huge proponent of slavery in the Bible?
Given that question 1 also implies the same problem of evil vs good, fully half the list of questions being posed are forms of the problem of evil

So, it is more than fair to begin where we started this series, and compare difficulties on the question (while also bearing in mind the direct evidence we saw in summary last time that warrants faith in the God of the Bible), before looking at whether we should "switch brands."

Now, too, two of these questions are obviously rather loaded accusations against the Bible, the God of the Bible and Christians who take the Bible seriously; arguably based on some fairly jaundiced, angry and out of context readings. But since each pivots on a question of good versus evil, it is important to deal with them on that basis here. 

(Of course, the reason why people take the Bible seriously as the word of God is being ducked: it breathes with the power of His Spirit and his Christ, bringing lost and hurting people to salvation and God-empowered renewal of life. That millions have met God in the face of the living Christ and have been transformed thereby, along the way playing a leading role in positively reforming our civilisation -- with the ending of slavery as a chief case in point, is also being ducked. Suffice to say for the moment, that is is no accident that the emblem of the antislavery society, a kneeling , chained slave crying out: am I not a man and a brother, is taken almost word for word from Philemon vv 15 - 16. Don't even mention how, 700 years ahead, the salvific death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as Suffering Servant and Messiah were prophesied with astonishing accuracy. No, no, no, a sophomoric strawman caricature of God and the scriptures must instead be thundered forth, to bring God, the Bible and Christians into the rhetorical dock, trembling to try to prove their innocence before a skeptical hanging judge who has photos of what he thinks is the smoking gun still being held by the obviously guilty hands. Somehow, it has seemingly never dawned on the objectors that if their angry caricature were anywhere near the balanced truth, there would be no educated Bible-believing Christians. But of course, in their imagination, the reason why you are educated in some field or other and are still a Christian, is that you have not thought about it logically; they routinely dismiss and/or demonise those who are educated to highest levels in philosophy and theology and who are Bible-believing Christians. Sad, ever so sad.)

The other two questions are more directly on the problem of evil: the painful sufferings of ordinary, decent people.

Now, to cogently deal with the pivotal issue, we need to first ask one basic question: why is it that pain and suffering are deemed objectionable by evolutionary materialist, atheistical skeptics? 

That is, why is it that the new atheism advocates hold and expect others to agree that such things OUGHT not to be?

Does this not suggest that even these skeptics quietly imply and assume that we are under moral government?

So, logically: to whom, why, do we report for that moral accountability?

That is: could there, just perhaps, be a moral lawgiver and governor of the universe who has written "the righteous requirements of the law" in our hearts?

This brings the underlying worldview problem into focus: the problem of good vs evil and its foundation.

In so doing, we now brings into focus the challenge that evolutionary materialist atheistical skeptics need to provide a basis, and thus objective ground for their "turtles" to stand on when they want to stand on their backs and trumpet forth their views on matters of good and evil, fairness and justice, equality, etc. That is, since the chain of warrant cannot reasonably go on forever, and cannot beg the question by going in circles, what is the worldview level foundational IS that they have that grounds how they resort or refer to OUGHT? 

This is in fact a major problem for such secularists, and one they too often prefer to duck by implicitly borrowing the Bible-based moral principles of the Christian faith when it suits them, and/or playing on the moral feelings that we have in part because we live in a civilisation that has been shaped by that heritage. 

But, as we saw in the first post in this series, every stack of worldview turtles has to stand on its own ground. 

Conveniently borrowed ground and/or quietly begged questions are not good enough. Where also -- since at this point the usual skeptic is likely to want to demand that Christians justify their foundation first -- the Christian faith provides the only serious candidate for such an IS who can solidly ground OUGHT: the inherently good, loving Creator God whose words and deeds reflect his loving concern for our own good, in a world where we are creatures with the awesome gift of being able to love God and one another in turn, which implies the equally awesome responsibility of the power of choice. 

In that context the good is that which is fulfilling its created purpose, and the evil is that which has become twisted out of line with its proper purpose or is being hampered from fulfilling it. 

That also means that evil will pervert and parasite off the good, will be incoherent, will be chaotic and destructive. Hence also one of the key tests for moral soundness: if a principle or practice were to have its full, free course in the world and were to become the universal norm, what would happen? If we could not consistently treat one another like that, or chaos, breakdown, destruction and disintegration would result that principle or practice is evil. Think about: lying, cheating, stealing and murder vs truthfulness, honesty and fair dealing, as well as reaching out to and helping the hurting and needy.

But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves here.

Leading Intelligent Design Researcher, Mathematician and Philosopher-Theologian William Dembski helps us pull the foundational issue into focus, by pointing out a key remark of Boethius:
In his Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius states the following paradox: “If God exists, whence evil? But whence good, if God does not exist?”
That is, once we see that we are under moral government and find a law written on our hearts by which we recognise good from evil and find ourselves drawn to the one and repelled by the other (save when we think it is advantageous for the moment), that is a strong indicator indeed that we are creatures of a moral, good, creator. Dembski therefore continues: 
 The problem of good does not receive nearly as much attention as the problem evil, but it is the more basic problem. That’s because evil always presupposes a good that has been subverted. All our words for evil make this plain: the New Testament word for sin (Greek hamartia) presupposes a target that’s been missed; deviation presupposes a way (Latin via) from which we’ve departed; injustice presupposes justice; etc. So let’s ask, who’s got the worse problem, the theist or the atheist? Start with the theist. God is the source of all being and purpose. Given God’s existence, what sense does it make to deny God’s goodness? None . . . . The problem of evil still confronts theists, though not as a logical or philosophical problem, but instead as a psychological and existential one [as is preliminarily spoken to here on] . . . . 

The problem of good as it faces the atheist is this: nature, which is nuts-and-bolts reality for the atheist, has no values and thus can offer no grounding for good and evil. As nineteenth century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll used to say, “In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments. There are consequences.” More recently, Richard Dawkins made the same point: “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” ["Prepared Remarks for the Dembski-Hitchens Debate," Uncommon Descent Blog, Nov 22, 2010]
A glance at the 1995 Scientific American article in which Dawkins spoke as just cited is particularly chilling:
 Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This lesson is one of the hardest for humans to learn. We cannot accept that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous: indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose . . . . In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference . . . . DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music. [“God’s Utility Function,” Sci. Am. Aug 1995, pp. 80 - 85.]
 That is, absent purpose in our world, good and evil are emptied of meaning, and so the evolutionary materialism Dawkins embraces so enthusiastically has no foundation for good or evil. Precisely as was warned against above. So, properly, such an atheistical evolutionary materialist has no proper basis to appeal to ought, s/he is either borrowing from someone else's worldview foundation, or is cynically manipulating our moral sentiments: on evolutionary materialism might and manipulation make 'right.'

And so -- just as Plato warned against in The Laws, Bk X, 360 BC (this is hardly a new insight) -- the door now yawns open to ruthless, manipulative nihilistic factions who can manage to get away with playing on our emotions.  (Which, sadly, sounds all too familiar when we note the strident, loaded tone of the questions above.)

The problem is so important, that let us pause to listen to Will Hawthorne, in a rather insightful blog article:
Assume (per impossibile) that atheistic naturalism [[= evolutionary materialism] is true. Assume, furthermore, that one can't infer an 'ought' from an 'is' [[the 'is' being in this context physicalist: matter-energy, space- time, chance and mechanical forces].  (Richard Dawkins and many other atheists should grant both of these assumptions.)
Given our second assumption, there is no description of anything in the natural world from which we can infer an 'ought'. And given our first assumption, there is nothing that exists over and above the natural world; the natural world is all that there is. It follows logically that, for any action you care to pick, there's no description of anything in the natural world from which we can infer that one ought to refrain from performing that action.
Add a further uncontroversial assumption: an action is permissible if and only if it's not the case that one ought to refrain from performing that action . . . [[We see] therefore, for any action you care to pick, it's permissible to perform that action. If you'd like, you can take this as the meat behind the slogan 'if atheism is true, all things are permitted' . . . 
 In short, we are now at the threshold of the horrible, cynical, nihilistic principle: might makes 'right.'

So, we know what is at stake in the five questions that pivot on the problem of evil.

But, is there a more direct response  to the problem of evil?

Yes there is, one that was put on the table in the 1960's and 70's by the famous philosopher Alvin Plantinga, and which we may put in a nutshell relative to the book-length answer he gave. Citing from the course section just linked:
. . . it is claimed that the following set of theistic beliefs embed an unresolvable contradiction:
1.      God exists
2.      God is omnipotent – all powerful
3.      God is omniscient – all-knowing
4.      God is omni-benevolent – all-good
5.      God created the world
6.      The world contains evil
To do so, there is an implicit claim that, (2a) if he exists, God is omnipotent and so capable of -- but obviously does not eliminate -- evil. So, at least one of 2 – 5 should be surrendered. But all of these claims are central to the notion of God, so it is held that the problem is actually 1. 

Therefore, NOT-1: God does not exist.

However, it has been pointed out by Plantinga and others that:
  1. 2a is not consistent with what theists actually believe: if the elimination of some evil would lead to a worse evil, or prevent the emergence of a greater good, then God might have a good reason to permit some evil in the cosmos.
  2. Specifically, what if “many evils result from human free will or from the fact that our universe operates under natural laws or from the fact that humans exist in a setting that fosters soul-making . . . [and that such a world] contains more good than a world that does not” ?
  3. In this case, Theists propose that 2a should be revised: 2b: “A good, omnipotent God will eliminate evil as far as he can without either losing a greater good or bringing about a greater evil.”  But, once this is done, the alleged contradiction collapses.
  4. Further, Alvin Plantinga – through his free will defense -- was able to show that the theistic set is actually consistent. He did this by augmenting the set with a further proposition that is logically possible (as opposed to seeming plausible to one who may be committed to another worldview) and which makes the consistency clear. That proposition, skeletally, is 5a: “God created a world (potentially) containing evil; and has a good reason for doing so.” Propositions 1, 2b, 3, 4, and 5a are plainly consistent, and entail 6.
  5. The essence of that defense is:
    “A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures . . . God can create free creatures, but he can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For . . . then they aren’t significantly free after all . . . He could only have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.” [NB: This assumes that moral good reflects the power of choice: if we are merely robots carrying out programs, then we cannot actually love, be truthful, etc.] [From: Clark, Kelley James. Return to Reason. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 69 – 70, citing Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil, (Eerdmans, 1974), p. 30.]
  6. Nor is the possible world known as heaven a good counter-example. For, heaven would exist as a world in which the results of choices made to live by the truth in love across a lifetime have culminated in their eternal reward. This we may see from an argument made by the apostle Paul:
    Rom 2:6 God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” 78 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. [NIV]
  7. Anticipating the onward response that in at least some possible worlds, there are free creatures, all of whom freely do what is right, Plantinga asserts a further possibility: trans-world depravity. That is, in all worlds God could create in which a certain person, say Gordon, exists; then that person would have freely gone wrong at least once. And, what if it is further possible that this holds for every class of created, morally capable being? (Then, there would be no possible worlds in which moral good is possible but in which moral  evil would not in fact occur. So the benefit of moral good would entail that the world would contain transworld depraved creatures.)
  8. Moreover, Plantinga proposes that there is a possible state of affairs in which God and natural evil can exist. For instance, if all natural evils are the result of the actions of significantly free creatures such as Satan and his minions, then since it is logically possible that God could not have created a world with a greater balance of good over evil if it did not contain such creatures, God and natural evil are compatible.
  9. At this point, albeit grudgingly, leading atheologians (Such as Mackie and Williams) concede that the deductive form of the problem of evil stands overturned. Thus, a new question is put on the table.
  10. It is: But what if the world seems to contain too much evil, and evil that is apparently pointless, i.e. gratuitous? First, the greater good “absorbs” at least some of the evils. To this, the Christian Theist further responds that there are goods in the world that are left out of the account so far; especially, that the fall of mankind led to the greatest good of all: that God loved the world and gave his Son, setting in motion the programme of redemption as a supreme good that absorbs all evils. That is, it is rational for a Christian to believe there are no unabsorbed evils, even though the atheologian may beg to differ with the Christian’s beliefs.
  11. However, it should be noted that there is an existential or pastoral form of the problem of evil (as we saw above): where the overwhelming force of evil and pain brings us to doubt God. To that, no mere rational argument will suffice; for it is a life-challenge we face, as did Job. And, as a perusal of Job 23:1 – 7, 38:1 – 7, 40:1 – 8, 42:1 – 6, God may be more interested in exposing our underlying motives and calling for willingness to trust him even where we cannot trace him, than in satisfying our queries and rebutting our pained accusations. That is, it is at least possible that God is primarily in the business of soul-making.         
Where then does the problem of evil stand today? 
On balance, it is rational to believe that God exists, but obviously there are many deep, even painful questions to which we have no answers. And, those who choose to believe in God will have a radically different evaluation of evil than those who reject him.
Obviously, it is not an easy or simple thing to give a responsible answer to the problem of evil, but plainly we need to at least outline such an answer, as we have just done. In that light, the four questions above, as posed by GII, take on a very different light:
a --> The very force of the question of good and evil tells us that we live in a world where OUGHT is real and binding, and thus a world in which we are morally governed people. Such a world is a world in which love, the foundation of the virtues is possible. But to have power to love is to have power to hate or be calloused or manipulative. However, in his own good time the infinitely wise God will sort out such injustices with perfect justice. In the meanwhile, we are called to be agents of justice, mercy and love insofar as we have the wisdom and capacity to help. A call that for centuries, godly people have heeded; and have made a difference for good. (Which is something that the loaded agenda of questions refuses to acknowledge.)

b --> It is also a world in which we now have resources, communication and capability to see to it that no-one starves to death. But, too often aid is not properly mobilised, or if mobilised, corrupt officials and those who wage war prevent the aid from reaching those who truly need it. 

c --> The mess in the officially atheistical state of North Korea, where US$ 500 millions were just wasted on a rocket that failed, while people starve, is emblematic, raising again the antislavery society's motto taken from Philemon vv 15 - 16: "am I not a man and a brother'?

d --> Next, I am not so sure that we can justly claim to be "good people." A fairer estimate is that we are finite, fallible, morally fallen and struggling, far too often ill-willed and misbehaving. As a direct and indirect consequence of that, a lot of bad things happen to ourselves and to others on which our behaviour has impacts. 

e --> Maybe, then, we need to shift focus from finger pointing, to first dealing with our own contribution to the mess, by repenting and turning to God based on the truth of the gospel. Then, we can set about understanding the challenges faced by others, and doing good insofar as we can. Also, we can be confident based on the proof offered in the prophesied and fulfilled resurrection of Jesus with 500+ witnesses, that God will bring a consummation that will more than restore the situation.

f --> In an already quite long post, it is not best to take up specific Bible exegesis matters just now [hold on till next time, DV . . . ], but since, from infancy we are a tad less than innocent, I am not so sure that it is wise to blame God for the deaths of "innocents." 

g --> More broadly, death serves to limit the growth of evil, putting a terminus to the career of the truly wicked; in some cases breaking the havoc wreaked by states that have become plagues on the earth (think about what it took to stop Hitler). And, where the deaths involve those who are not competent to be responsible, and especially those below an age of moral accountability, we can be assured that God welcomes such with open arms.

h --> When it comes to slavery, by the time we come to Moses, we are dealing with a long established practice. The tenor of the Mosaic law is to limit and to ameliorate, restraining the hardness of men's hearts. Indeed, much of what is called slavery in the OT is in effect indentured service; a means of recovering from poverty and an alternative to, frankly, starvation. (That is the context in which many sold themselves into slavery in the ANE; indeed, we can see this playing out in the story of the seven years famine in Egypt in Genesis.) And someone who takes on a student loan or scholarship with a bond to work to repay by service is not far different to that sort of service. 

i --> What is strictly forbidden on pain of a death penalty is kidnapping and selling into slavery; precisely what was the foundation of the infamous triangle trade across the Atlantic. And it is no coincidence that this was exactly the first target of the antislavery movement.

j --> Going further, as we read the pivotal letter to Philemon, we see the heart issue: slavery, in this light was one of the many oppressive or abuse-prone institutions that  are first regulated and ameliorated in light of the hardness of men's hearts, then as the gospel and the indwelling Spirit transform hearts and lives, can be reformed or abolished. In short the loaded word GII uses, "proponent" -- unsurprisingly, given what has been going on all along -- is arguably unfounded and emotively manipulative in a context of failing to read and understand the whole context.

k --> This is similar in many respects to the way the Bible treats divorce: Moses recognised the reality, and ameliorated it, but then we learn from the later prophets: "I hate divorce," says the Lord, and Jesus warns us that what God has joined we ought not to put asunder. (The story of prohibition of alcohol and the ongoing attempt to prohibit some of the milder drugs such as marijuana shows the problem of trying to impose a morally good but unenforceable law.)
So, we can again see how, once we insist that every worldview must be properly grounded in light of a proper comparative difficulties assessment, the case being made by GII deflates. Unsurprisingly.

Next time, we will look at some of the more specifically Bible questions. END