Butterflies and Sliding Doors: the failure of apologetics to resolve the problem of evil

The logical argument from evil is dead and its smaller sibling, the probabilistic argument, is such a weak thing that it cannot even rise from its sick bed, let alone strike any significant blow against theism.

So say apologists including, recently, Stephen J Graham who has blogged about it more than once. Here is an example.

The death knell for the logical argument was supposedly sounded by Plantiga’s Free-Will Defence, in which Plantinga argues that in order for humans to be capable of making moral decisions libertarian free-will must exist. If libertarian free-will exists then it is not logically possible for God to prevent it from being used to do evil. But the ability freely to choose between good and bad is so valuable that it is worth the evil which has resulted. (There is a supplementary argument which is supposed to deal with evil not caused by humans, “natural evil”, but let’s keep things simple and leave that on the back-burner.)

The first thing to say about this argument is that it doesn’t work at all unless you accept that libertarian free-will:
1. is a coherent concept,
2. is actually the way things operate and
3. is necessary in order for acts to have real moral value.

Most compatabilists will reject every one of the above. Unless he can prove all of them, Plantinga’s defence should be considered a failure.

However, SGJ thinks Plantinga has succeeded and so he focuses his fire on the probabilistic argument from free-will. Leaving aside the question of whether his dismissal of the logical argument from evil is premature, I should like to look at how he tackles the probabilistic argument.

Although he does not state it in terms in this particular post, SJG draws heavily on the Molinist position to support his argument. This position is strongly favoured by William Lane Craig, on whose work SJG draws heavily. Molinism involves God’s supposed knowledge of counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are concerned with what would have happened if events had unfolded differently. E.g What would life be like if Hitler had won the war? Or, If I had tossed a coin five minutes ago, would it have landed on heads or tails?

God is supposed to have knowledge of what free-willed (in the libertarian sense) humans would do in all logically possible worlds. He then providentially only creates the world where the greatest possible good is achieved with least possible (unavoidable) evil.

God, it is argued, may know that by allowing an apparent evil, he will bring about, in some way not obvious to humans, a benefit which will far outweigh that evil. Like the butterfly whose wing fluttering might, according to chaos theory, set in motion a chain of events culminating in a hurricane on the other side of the world, so when we see what we perceive to be gratuitous evil it may for all we know produce a series of effects which in the end result in a greater good. Or, like the film Sliding Doors, apparently good outcomes may turn out to be…..not that great after all.

Given a working definition of knowledge as “justified, true belief” it is not at all clear how God can “know” what I would do in any given (non-actualised) situation if I have libertarian free-will.
But if we accept that somehow God can know what his creatures would do in any possible set of circumstances, is it tenable to claim that what we perceive as gratuitous evil may at some point operate to bring about a greater good?

SJG correctly points out that the burden of proof is on the atheist in this debate. He does not say to what standard he expects the burden of proof to be met. In law, the burden of proof is almost invariably on the party who brings the case to court. However the law recognises two different standards to be achieved in meeting that burden. The lower standard (usually applied in civil cases) is on the balance of probabilities – that it is more likely than not that the claimant’s evidence is right. The higher standard, usually applied in criminal cases, is beyond reasonable doubt.

In defending the probabilistic argument from evil I might be expected to argue that the atheist need only prove her case on the balance of probabilities But in fact I will argue that the evidence we have establishes beyond reasonable doubt that gratuitous evil exists.

SJG suggests that the good effects may take decades to appear. His mentor, WLC goes further:

The brutal murder of an innocent man or a child’s dying of leukemia could produce a sort of ripple effect through history such that God’s morally sufficient reason for permitting it might not emerge until centuries later and perhaps in another land. When you think of God’s providence over the whole of history, I think you can see how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability that God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting a certain evil. We’re just not in a good position to assess such probabilities.

Wow! Centuries might pass. And not even in the same land!

But the mistake here is to introduce a third standard of proof, one that is so high that nothing ever could or will meet it outside the realms of such abstract fields as maths or logic. The standard of proof demanded here is absolute proof, beyond a per adventure, where any possibility of mistake, no matter how speculative or unsupported by evidence is supposed to be enough to undermine what our common sense tells us to be true.

When the prosecution seeks to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt, reasonable doubt is not triggered by the theoretical possibility that (for instance) shape shifting aliens might have taken the defendant’s form, so that the clear as a bell image of him on CCTV robbing a bank is not him at all.

Yes, we all know that hindsight is a wonderful thing. And we can all see (not just Christians, as SJG bizarrely implies) that history is a moving picture. But that doesn’t mean that we should all suspend our judgements about everything, indefinitely, because after all, you never know, do you? Yet it would follow from SJG’s logic that that is exactly what we should do. When, at the end of his post, he claims that the resurrection establishes the triumph of good in spite of the apparent evil of the crucifixion, what gives him the confidence to say so? Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight it will turn out that the resurrection was a Bad Thing, leading to a false religion which has misled and ensnared millions of dupes. But an omnipotent and omniscient God has foreseen that this Bad Thing is a necessary precondition to some ultimate greater good which will brought about in thousands or maybe millions of years time. And perhaps the lucky beneficiaries of this particular evil for an ultimate greater good may turn out to be inhabitants of the planet Zog, light years away….

For goodness sake! This way madness lies. If, as SJG and WLC implicitly concede the world gives every indication of containing gratuitous evil, then mere speculation is not a rational basis for denying it.

SJG’s assertion that the sufferings of this life are negligible when viewed in the context of eternity make (for this atheist at least) unpleasant reading. Consider the recent loss of the aircraft shot down over Ukraine. The “lucky” ones died in the immediate explosion. But many would have been conscious as they fell through the air to their deaths. And if that is not enough to convince you that temporal human suffering is of great moment, consider the fate of those who were left to mourn for them. A life time of grief, where all a parent’s cherished hopes and dreams for a beloved child diminish to just the narrow wish “Maybe she was one of those ‘lucky’ ones….”

“Infinitesimal”? Really?

I cannot agree that anything can reduce such suffering to no importance. But if eternity does make temporal suffering of no consequence, then it will follow that Jesus’ human temporal suffering on the cross is nothing much. Atheists sometimes like to say “Jesus had a really bad week-end for us.” It seems that SJG would find it hard to disagree with this sentiment given his take on the compensations afforded by eternity.

When SJG says that God may reward those who go through these trials in faith, what about those who have no faith, or the “wrong” faith? Perhaps SJG is a universalist, I don’t know. But if not, it does prompt the question of how the suffering of an atheist or a Muslim or a Jew can be justified when they are going to get to the other side to find…more of the same, only infinitely worse and with no end to it.

Plantinga’s free-will defence rests in the shaky foundations of libertarian free-will. WLC’s “Sliding Doors” argument rests on an unreasonable standard for proof. By diminishing the horrors of human suffering SJG gives the appearance of being what I am sure he is not in reality: crass and insensitive.

May I respectfully suggest a return to the drawing board?

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6 thoughts on “Butterflies and Sliding Doors: the failure of apologetics to resolve the problem of evil

  1. Frances,
    I am replying to one point that you make here, but quoting words you used to make a similar point over on SJG’s blog, because their flippancy is easier to attack.
    You said, ” It was only six hours, for God’s sake! If you really believe that temporal suffering is diminished by being seen from the perspective of eternity, then time to draw a line under that particular six hours and move on, IMO.”

    Firstly, you seem not concede the fact that in certain cases the intensity of physical pain can be attenuated by changing one’s point of view.
    One can take as an example the intense agony that many women experience when giving birth.
    If one took the same degree of pain, and imagined it as a symptom of an injury or an illness, the experience would be quite different in the way it is lived out.
    I think of a personal experience I had in 1991.
    I went into hospital for an operation. I was told it could last up to two hours. At the time I was terrified by the idea of being anaesthetised. For a week after I would be very weak and prone to dizziness. I was warned I might experience severe back pain for a few weeks afterwards. Oh – and it wouldn’t cure anything I had, because I wasn’t sick

    Not a barrel of laughs, yet the physical suffering was attenuated by the fact that I was a bone marrow donor.

    Secondly, to dismiss Christ’s crucifixion as “having a bad week-end” or “It was only six hours, for God’s sake” entirely misses the point, from a Christian perspective. If God in Christ was omni-everything, then that would imply a capacity for omni-suffering. In order for that pain to attain a paroxysm of intensity, the narrative recounts how even the solace of knowing that it would all be over in a few hours was relinquished.
    This is expressed in Christ’s anguished and totally desperate cry, ” “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
    It turns out that fear of abandon is probably the most powerful, the most primeval fear that humans experience. Variously expressed in feelings of rejection, loss, grief – in a word, separation. We didn’t like it at the moment we were born, and we spend our lives trying to avoid, sublimate or deny it.

    There are no records of any illiterate, Bronze age psychoanalysts, but the writer(s) of those words understood that even physical torture would be superseded by the unthinkable horror of being abandoned by God.

    The Biblical narrative indicates fairly clearly that Christ had lost the awareness of the fact that it would only be a bad week-end. He was facing the worst kind of eternity – rejected by mankind and abandoned by God.

    It grieves me that some Christian apologists resort to absurd theodicies in an attempt to justify the unjustifiable. You and I are on the same page here. It is a sign of the weakness of faith that they are unable to just accept that there are certain things in life and dying that simply do not square up with their beliefs. I have heard a wonderful old Catholic priest say the equivalent of, “That just makes no fucking sense.” when confronted with certain atrocities.
    That is what i call being real. Theodicies are pathetic attempts to avoid reality.

  2. Richard,

    The first thing I need to make clear is that I am not suggesting that Jesus did not suffer on the cross or that his suffering would not have been terrible. His end was mercifully short (as the Gospels tell it, anyway) compared to that of most victims (who lingered for days) but that said, I do not hold 6 hours of excruciating (literally) agony cheap.

    My point was that if eternity can wash away the horrors of temporal suffering then that has consequences for how you regard the crucifixion of Jesus. You cannot emphasise the temporal suffering on the cross without acknowledging that temporal suffering is of terrible significance.

    I don’t know what “omni-suffering” means. But if it was the result of God being in Jesus, then surely he would have known by the fact of his omni-suffering that he was not abandoned? Well, maybe if I understood the omni-suffering concept better I would see how that worked.

    I don’t think it is possible to know whether he said those words “My God, my God (etc)” as Matthew and Mark say, or if he did, what he meant by them. Were they truly a cry of despair? I think it’s Geza Vermes who says that Jesus thought that God would intervene before he died and that the cry is given when he realises that there is to be no supernatural rescue after all. But if it is supposed to be a reference to Psalm 22 then that ends with the expectation that God will listen to the Psalmist’s pleas, so maybe not a cry of despair? Luke and John do not include these words and Luke has a relatively composed Jesus committing his spirit into God’s hands. The historical Jesus, assuming there was one, may not have said any of those things but undoubtedly the cruelty of crucifixion would have caused unimaginable suffering.

    • You don’t know what “omni-suffering” means? No surprises there. Neither do I. I invented the neologism in order to engage the Christian discourse when defining God as omni-everything.
      However, I believe that the writers of the Gospels of Mark and Mark could have attributed those famous words to the dying Christ as a double lesson to the Jewish population at least.
      Many readers would, as you point out, have recognised the reference to Psalm 22. But Jesus dies before getting to the good bit! How despairing can that be?
      So the first lesson would be a reminder, albeit partial, of scriptural continuity in the Jewish tradition.
      The second lesson could have been the implied expectation of better times for people hearing about the crucifixion after the event.
      The apostles’ immediate reaction to the humiliating elimination of their leader/Messiah shows that they did not spontaneously think about a happy ending. “The King is dead. Long live the…..oh, shit, there’s nothing left at all.”

      It seems to me, that Christ’s suffering could not have been all-embracing if, at the back of his mind, he had been able to think, with his Divine omni-prescience, “Thank God this will all be over in a few hours.” Here is Christ entering fully into the human experience of physical pain and despair. As I said in my comment above, In order for that pain to attain a paroxysm of intensity, the narrative recounts how even the solace of knowing that it would all be over in a few hours had been voluntarily relinquished.

      You don’t understand omni-suffering? Well, truth be told, nobody understands omni-anything-at-all, do they? The mind can’t do omni concepts. Christian apologists invariably get their nether garments in a twist when they try to explain omni-ness.
      And don’t forget, all Christian apologists become irritating. I think it’s in the job description.

  3. I should perhaps add that when I made this point for the second time I phrased it rather more tersely than the first time round because I was irritated by SJG posting again on the topic when he had not responded to my comments.

  4. Pingback: The Impossible World of Randy Everist | counterapologistblog

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