You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2013.

Modern divine command theorists say that God’s commands flow from his essential nature. Since God is loving, we can know that he would never command horrible things, like the torture of a small child.

On the other hand, nearly all theists believe that God allows evil things to happen while simultaneously accepting the claim that God would prevent any gratuitous instance of evil. In other words, theists are committed to the following principle:

(E) Every instance of evil that occurs is such that either (a) its occurrence is necessary to prevent the occurrence of something equally bad or worse, or else (b) its occurrence is necessary to bring about some greater good.

If there is any instance of evil that does not satisfy either (a) or (b) (or both), then it is gratuitous. A perfectly loving God would eliminate any unnecessary evil.

Thus, what a theist believes is that if a person suffers, it is better that they suffered than had they not suffered because either (a) their suffering was logically required to prevent something worse from happening, or else (b) their suffering was logically required to bring about some greater good.

Suppose I have a close friend or family member who is addicted to heroin. He comes to me broke and suffering from severe withdrawals because he has been unable to purchase the drug or acquire it through other means. He asks to borrow some money and it is obvious to me that he intends to use the money to buy more heroin. Now, I submit that the right thing to do is to refuse to give him the money. I should do this even though I know that if my friend does not get his fix, he will continue to suffer greatly as his withdrawal symptoms get worse. This is because it would be better for my fried to go through the withdrawal on the path to losing his addiction than to relieve his suffering temporarily by feeding the addiction. That is, I should allow my friend to suffer because it is in his best interests to suffer (even if he doesn’t agree that it is). For the purposes of this discussion, the important uphsot of this example is that it is not the case that if I love someone, then I will prevent any instance of their suffering that I can prevent. However, we can even go further. Indeed, it is plausible that the best thing for me to do in this instance is to take my friend to a detox clinic where he can endure his withdrawal symptoms in a controlled environment. That is, the best thing to do is something that will cause my friend more suffering.

So, in general, it is not the case that if I love someone, I want to prevent every instance of their suffering. Rather, what I want is what is best for them. And, in at least some cases, what is best for them is that they suffer. Now, typically what is best for a person is that their suffering is minimized (at least that is what I think we have most reason to believe; I am not sure that a theist can accept this claim), but at least sometimes, a loving person will allow those they love to suffer.

Here is what is important for the present argument: That God is loving does not imply that he will want to prevent all suffering; it implies that he wants what is best for us. This is what underlies principle (E).

Now, if we are not in a position to know whether, for any instance of apparently gratuitous suffering, the suffer is better off than she would have been had she not suffered, then we are not in a position to know whether a loving God would command torture.

Atheists typically believe that cases of apparently gratuitous suffering really are cases of gratuitous suffering. The suffering endured by a dying cancer patient appears gratuitous. There does not appear to be any greater good such the the patient’s suffering is necessary to bring about that good; nor does there appear to be any evil equal to or greater than the patient’s suffering that the suffering is necessary to prevent. The atheist says that things are exactly as they appear; such an instance of suffering is gratuitous. The theist, however, has to believe that appearances are deceiving. The theist believes that the patient’s suffering is not gratuitous because he believes that God exists and that God is loving.

Given this, what reason can a theist give for believing that God would not command the torture of an infant? That God loves the infant? Well, we just saw that, in general, being loving does not entail wanting to prevent every instance of suffering. Rather, it entails wanting what is best for the beloved. So that God loves the child is not evidence that God does not want the child to be tortured. If the torture of the child will bring about what is best, then God, being loving, will command it.

So, what the theist needs is a reason for thinking that it is never best that children be tortured. Without that, we cannot know that God would not command the torture of an infant.  But can the theist provide such a reason? I don’t see how. If theists are willing to believe that the cancer patient’s suffering is not gratuitous, that somehow the world is better off for that instance of severe pain, how can theists consistently maintain that they know that an instance of infant torture is gratuitous?

It is common for theists, during discussions of the problem of evil, to point out that, given our epistemic limitations, we are not in a position to know that God does not have reasons for failing to prevent the many horrendous and apparently gratuitous evils in our world (the name for this position is Skeptical Theism). Well, the same would seem to apply to any instance of child torture. If our epistemic situation is so limited that we cannot know that God does not have reasons for permitting the slaughter of children, then it must be so limited that we cannot know whether child torture is sometimes necessary to bring about some greater good or prevent something equally bad or worse. Thus, the theist cannot know that a loving God will not command the torture of infants.


This is a follow-up to my last post on the question of whether there are phenomena that theism can account for but which naturalism cannot. The Cosmological Argument can be thought of as an argument not just for the existence of God, but for the claim that a theistic worldview has the resources to explain something that a naturalistic worldview cannot explain (in its simplest form, this something is the fact that there exists something rather than nothing). I don’t think this is so and I am going to try to explain why.

Here is the Kalam cosmological argument.

(1)    Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

(2)    The Universe began to exist.

(3)    The universe has a cause.

First, premise (1) is odd. Why say that everything that begins to exist has a cause, rather than everything, full stop? The answer is that the attempt to use the alternative,

(1*) Everything that exists has a cause

has an obvious and unfortunate consequence for theism: it implies that it is false. Since God is supposed to be uncaused, (1*) cannot be true (if (1*) is true, then there is no uncaused God, so theism is false). So, we get (1) as a means of avoiding begging the question against theism.

It is important to see that (1) depends upon a more general principle, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) [I am just going to assume here that if PSR is false, then for that very reason, we should be skeptical of (1). But I would be happy to pursue this if anyone is interested]. PSR says (in one of its simpler formulations) that for everything that exists, there is a reason that it exists, in other words, there is an explanation for the existence of everything. Now, making the reasonable inference that, in the material realm, the explanation for the existence of anything will be in terms of causes, we can assume that if the PSR is true, everything that exists has a cause. But this supports (1*) doesn’t it? Well, the problem, again, is that this inference only works if we ignore the possibility that there exist non-material things. The explanation for their existence might not be in terms of causes. So we shouldn’t assume that everything that exists has a cause. However, certainly material things have causes, at least as far as we know. And, as far as we know, every material thing had a beginning. Roughly then, (there are a few other considerations that I will ignore here), that is one way of getting to (1) from the PSR.

But the PSR does imply that everything that exists has an explanation. So while it might be unreasonable to ask what the cause of God is (since, if he exists, he is immaterial, and so might not have a cause), that does not mean that it is unreasonable to ask for the explanation of God. So, if the PSR is true, then, if God exists, there is an explanation for the existence of God.

We’ve gotten a little bit side-tracked, so let’s get back to the main thread of the argument. There are actually two points to be made here. First, even if the CA is a sound argument, and even if it is true that God created the universe, none of that tells us what the explanation for the universe is. That is, saying that God did does not explain how it was done. If there is nothing more to the explanation that the claim that God did it, then what is the difference between saying that God did it and saying that it was magic?

The second point is that since the CA relies on the PSR, there is no reason to think that it is only the universe’s existence that presents a fundamental mystery that cries out for explanation. If the question is, “why is there something rather than nothing?” then theists should ask why there is a God.

So, what I am saying here is this: If the problem that theists point to is that there is no naturalistic account of the existence of the universe (or, even more broadly, why there exists something rather than nothing), then the theist does not have an answer to this problem either. The naturalist *might* always have to assume the existence of something in order to provide explanations, but so must the theist. The theist must fall back on the existence of God, something that is not explained by theism. Now, of course I am aware that theists have tried to avoid this. There is a long theological history to the claim that God contains the reason for his own existence. But, as I argued recently, that claim, even if it makes sense and it is true, does not tell what this reason is. The claim that God exists a se tells us nothing more than that there is a reason for God’s existence and that it is contained in his nature; it does not tell us what the reason is.

So, it is false that theism has an explanation for the existence of the universe. Thus, the argument that says that theism is to be preferred over atheism because the former can account for something that the latter cannot is a bad argument since the premise is false.

There are several arguments for the existence of God which share a common structure and similar premises that I would like to examine. These arguments point to some feature of our world and claim that there is no naturalistic explanation for this feature and that therefore, naturalism is false. There are supposed to be arguments for the existence of God, which is part of what I find odd about them. That naturalism or materialism cannot account for something is, at best, indirect evidence for theism.  That we cannot account for some phenomenon under a naturalistic paradigm, even if it is true, does not imply that the correct explanation will involve the activity of a personal divine being. I will expand on this and other problems that I see with this style of argument in this post.

To start, here is a list of some examples of the kind of argument I am talking about, with a few relevant and interesting links:

Now, most of these are not names for a single argument,  but rather families of arguments. There is not one Argument from Morality, for example. Rather, there are a host of arguments that suggest that the existence of objective morality (or some related notion) is a reason to believe that God exists. Such is the case with most of the arguments on this list.

It is also worth pointing out that not all versions of each of the above arguments are formulated in terms of the claim that naturalism cannot account for the respective phenomena. There are popular versions of the argument from morality, for example, that do not depend on any claim that naturalism cannot account for morality.  Watch this short (and rather annoying, I grant) video from William Lane Craig for an example. Craig doesn’t say here that naturalism can’t account for objective morality. However, when Craig and other apologists attempt to defend the key premise of this argument (If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist), they typically point to alleged facts about what naturalism implies about morality and value. (see my paper “Do Atheists Need a Moral Theory to be Moral Realists?” for more on this). In this post, I am directing my comments to those versions of these arguments that implicitly or explicitly rely on something like the following inference:

Naturalism cannot account for (insert difficult to account for phenomenon here). But (difficult to account for phenomenon) does exist (or is real, or did/does occur). Theism can account for it. Thus theism has an advantage over naturalism.[*EDIT* Commonly, something like the following additional conclusion is added: To be consistent, naturalists have to give up belief in (difficult to account for phenomenon)].

There are three general problems with these arguments. The first, and most obvious (at least it should be most obvious) is that the fact that we currently lack an explanation for some phenomenon does not mean that we have to give up believing in the phenomenon. That we lack a naturalistic account of morality (even if this is true) does not mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in objective morality. After all, the correct naturalistic account may be just around the corner. Apologists who wield these arguments seem to think that if your worldview does not currently account for some phenomenon, then you have to either disbelieve in the phenomena or reject your worldview and embrace one that can account for it. But this is not so, as we can see when we look at parallel examples that have no obvious connection to religious beliefs.

Biologists do not currently understand precisely how salmon, after years of living in the ocean hundreds of miles away from the streams of their births, are able to find their home streams in which to spawn at the end of their life cycle. So we do not yet have a satisfactory naturalistic explanation of this biological phenomenon. Does that mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in it, or give up naturalism in order to be consistent? The suggestion is clearly ridiculous. As is the claim that since there is no current naturalistic account of objective morality or human reason or beauty, etc., naturalists cannot consistently believe in these things. Human knowledge is not at an end; we continue to develop our understanding of reality and will do so indefinitely. The fact that we cannot currently account for something is not a reason to either disbelieve in that thing or to reject our worldview. It is a reason to keep looking for the right explanation.

Second, nothing about the falsity of naturalism implies the truth of theism. It is true that if metaphysical naturalism is true, then theism is false. But to go from the falsity of naturalism to the truth of theism would be to commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent. So, even if it were true that there are no naturalistic explanations of phenomena that we all agree are real (rationality, for example), this would not imply that theism is true. It is perfectly consistent to be a non-naturalistic atheist (Schopenhauer is a great example). Indeed, I do not espouse metaphysical naturalism. My view is that naturalism is best understood as a methodological principle. And there are good reasons to adopt this principle, as a commenter named Keith pointed out in my recent post about the EAAN. In a future post, I will have more to say about how odd it is that when apologists criticize atheism, they consistently attack naturalism rather than the claim that there is no God.

The third problem is the most destructive to this kind of argument. It just is not true that theism can account for the phenomena mentioned in any of the arguments. With all of these arguments listed above, proponents claim that there are theistic explanations of the relevant phenomena, but they either never provide the explanation or else the explanation they do provide is wrong or fundamentally flawed.  In my next post, I will use the cosmological argument as an example to explain what I mean.

Jason Thibodeau

Important Links

(video blog)
(student-edited blog)