Tag Archives: god

Notes on the Problem of Evil

For the purposes of this post I shall define God as an omnipotent, omniscient creator being with a vested interest in mankind and the individual welfare of human beings. This definition includes, but is not limited to the Judeo-Christian God.

Why is it important that I begin by pointing out these characteristics of God? Because a God with these characteristics necessitates the problem of evil. An omnipotent being can do anything to stop evil, an omniscient being knows the details of all the evil that is happening at all times, and how to stop it, and a being with a vested interest in mankind and the individual welfare of human beings should be stopping evil. The attribute of creator is also important because God created conditions in which evil can exist in the first place.

These divine characteristics are not uncommonly attributed to God. In fact I’d posit that the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam necessarily has these characteristics. The problem of evil asks; given these attributes why isn’t God doing anything to stop evil?

The standard theistic response to this is called the free-will defence. This states that moral evils are caused by the actions of free agents—a trait that God gave to us thus meaning we are responsible for our action rather than him. If we grant this, I shall argue that it does not do much to get around the problem of evil. So for the time being I shall grant that the evils committed by moral agents are not in God’s control because he gave us the free will to decide whether to be good or bad.

Lets look first at what makes someone a moral agent. I put forth that it requires at least two things; understanding of the potential harm or benefit of one’s action or inaction, and then acting (or not acting) deliberately, having considered these things. What we consider morally good actions are those in which the actor has considered the harm and benefit of their actions and deliberately acted in a way that is beneficial. Morally evil actions would be the same but with the actor deliberately deciding to act in a harmful way.

Where we arrive at a separate facet of the problem of evil is when we apply this criteria of moral agency to God. The act of creation by an omniscient being is a moral action because he already knew all of the potential harm caused by his creating the universe. Being omnipotent allows us to contend that God could have created a universe with no suffering, but chose not to, so we cannot posit that God had no choice but to create a world with suffering. Everything that happens in this universe could either have been prevented from the start, or stopped from occurring (excluding for the sake of this argument the free actions of human beings). This means that God decided to create a universe in which earthquakes, drought, disease, viruses, parasites, cancer, and so on can occur, and then failed to prevent them from occurring. This is the heart of the problem of evil. It’s not necessarily about human evil, it’s about a God who allows his creation to harm and inflict suffering on innocent people, and doesn’t do anything to stop it—in fact he created the universe in such a way that it happens regularly. The atheist has a difficult time making this fit with the idea of a loving God that has an interest in the individual welfare of human beings. It seems to be yet another problem that occurs from the application of inherently contradictory attributes to a being.

These kind of issues are often dealt with by positing that these horrible sufferings occur with some greater purpose in mind. The problem still stands though. God can do anything. Therefore he can arrive at any outcome without suffering. So he still has no morally acceptable reason to allow these things to happen. It is also worth pointing out that God having a plan with a predetermined outcome is in contradiction with the idea of us having free will. Free will entails that all our actions are entirely our own, that they are not presided over by someone tweaking things and manipulating history towards a particular end. If we have free will then God’s plan could fail. But why would God put the universe in such weird jeopardy? At this point it is worth stepping back and realising what we are positing here. A being who created us and gave us free will is engaged in trying to steer history towards his desired outcome in spite of the fact that he could have just had his desired outcome from the start, and he certainly could achieve it without any suffering. It turns our universe into a strange battleground between our free will and God’s ultimate plan. A battle in which suffering and pain—though preventable—are inevitable. Why would God create this scenario? Even if we don’t have free will and everything happens according to his plan, why is God playing weird vanity games with sentient life? It’s all rather unnecessary and it creates a sinister picture of God—which is a problem when you claim that he is unconditionally loving of all beings.

This is the problem of evil. If God exists—no matter how you look at it—the existence of pain and suffering in the world is preventable. The only reason it can persist is if God is not loving, or if God is impotent. This conclusion is true regardless of whether or not we include human free will. In my opinion this is the strongest argument against the Judeo-Christian God. If anybody thinks that I have made any mistakes in my case, has any criticism, or wishes to rebut anything I’ve said feel free to post in the comment thread.


Pope in-fallacy

A recent speech by the current Pope, in Britain, where he links atheism and Nazism has caused some controversy in the blogosphere and in our own forums. The Pope spoke of “a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society’ and went on to express concerns over “aggressive forms of secularism’. This is such a common trope in debates that I wanted to take an entire blog post to explain what I see as the gaping flaw in this form of argument. What I want to discuss is the way atheism and theism should be properly related to religion and ideology and why it is incorrect to set up atheism as the counter-position to religion.

Atheism, at its most inclusive, describes anyone who has no belief in gods. From even this basic understanding, it is remarkably difficult to see how atheism could be expected to produce any action from an individual atheist. There is no causal line from the absence of a single belief to any other belief or action, be it good or bad. Even explicit atheism (the denial of gods) does not imply any further belief or action. If we say this for atheism, in order to be consistent, we must also say this for theism. Theism (the belief in gods), as a single belief, does not entail any other beliefs or actions by the individual theist. A theist may believe in the philosopher’s god, a non-interventionist god, Allah, the trinity, or a whole pantheon of pagan gods. But even these basic beliefs about the nature of gods are additional to the initial claim of theism, not derived from it. Taking the example of the Thirty Years war, the Pope would have us blame theism for the conflict. However, given both sides of the conflict were theists this conclusion makes little sense. The true dividing factor was the different religions, Catholicism and Protestantism, which each side maintained. My contention is that while atheism and theism are blameless in the great atrocities of history, ideology and religion should be held to account.

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There’s A Reason The Metro Is Free

Most of you will have realised that I get the vast majority of my newsing from free London rag The Metro, distributed around the Underground every morning in order to allow bleary-eyed businessmen to further realise that the world is falling gracelessly towards the sun. I don’t think the Metro is a bad little paper, really; the quality of writing is generally good, and it catches stories earlier than other papers you might come across in the day. And you’ll find articles of comparable quality on the same subjects in “real” newspapers.

However, you develop an unfair bias of a newspaper when you peruse it mainly to find new nonsense to write about in your blog. You ignore all rational articles about politics\current affairs\crossbows to the face and concentrate only on articles that guarantee a spout of vitriol frothy enough to incur a transparent sense of self-righteousness. And as a result, your perception is that the chosen paper exists only to print stories about religion, druids and the supernatural. Unfair, since the Metro regularly dishes out reasonably informative articles about modern science and astronomy.

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Moral Castles Made Of Sand

Here’s a riddle for you.*

Is it better to have flexible, socially contextual morals that may dip below what many people view as laudable behaviour as a result of free will and personal choice . . . or is it better to have a uniformly high moral standard followed, in part or even in whole, as a result of fearing the perceived consequences of not following it?

Of course, you might say that I’ve used Wordification to bias the issue somewhat – and because I have no higher power to feel accountable to I’m perfectly happy to lie, and say that I didn’t bias the point in the slightest.

The question, I suppose, is how worthy or altruistic can a high moral standard be truly taken to be when it’s prescribed rather than acquired? It becomes little more than Utilitarianism if your moral compass is constantly aware that behaving immorally will result in hell, or a few lost brownie-heaven points from God. You’re not acting morally, you’re just protecting your own skin – which is exactly what I would do, of course.

Continue reading Moral Castles Made Of Sand

A Debate With A Vague God Enthusiast

Haven’t blogged for a bit, so I’m storming back with a long one. In addition to that, I have a larger than average blog post for your delectation.

My girlfriend and her friend ended up talking about God, and my name got mentioned – presumably because I’m just that awesome. My GF, as someone who’s pretty much had her faiths eroded by my niggling arguments (“Shall we get some wine? Also, why would an all-powerful God allow evil to occur?”) wanted her friend to talk to me on the subject. She prepared a short argument and I emailed her my response.

Something I wasn’t aware of until after I’d emailed her was that she is, apparently, very stubborn and will never let go of her beliefs. Which renders debate more or less meaningless, but hey – who knows?


“What is sense? Why can’t open minded thoughts help you accept a possibility of a greater power/energy source named as god?”

I think my GF gave you the wrong impression of my perspective on this issue. I accept the POSSIBILITY of God, or a higher power, simply because it would be scientifically hypocritical to state with certainty that it could NOT exist. Until every iota of the universe has been catalogued, which is almost certainly something we will never do, we cannot posture with certainty on such matters. To state something CANNOT exist is a faith-based position, albeit anthetical to faith IN a God, and as such is a position not often adopted by intellectuals.

So, I can accept the possibility. But with a complete lack of any positive proof, there is no point considering it further. An inability to disprove something is not adequate proof FOR it, otherwise you would have to give equal credence to absolutely every unfalsifiable hypothesis anyone ever makes. Along with your concept of God, you’d have to grant the equal chance of everyone else’s concept of God, along with all supernatural claims. This is without even going into the logical paradoxii that arguments for God tend to invoke, which I’ll go into a bit later..

“Why can’t there be a god?”

I’d need to know more detail about your concept of God to answer this. However, in general, God creates more questions than it answers. Simply using God as a catch-all answer to the mysteries of the universe is unrealistic, because you then have to explain God. You end up with paradoxii of omnipotence, problems of free will, problems of omnicognisance. So tell me more about your perception of God – is it conscious? Insensate? Does it have a specific purpose? What powers does it possess? Is it immortal/eternal/invincible? Is it limited in any sense?

Until I have more detail, though, the simple answer is there COULD be a God – but it’s so vastly unlikely, so internally inconsistent and contradictory by most human accounts, that there’s no point in pursuing it. As we on the internet say, pictures or it didn’t happen. The onus of proof is ALWAYS on the other side to substantiate God – NOT on me to disprove.

“By opening your mind and thoughts you accept possibilities, by accepting possibilities you become more knowledgeable, and by being more knowledgeable you are naturally more intelligent.”

Accepting possibilities is fine. It’s what drives scientific endeavour and progress. But you don’t actually become more knowledgeable until you have proved these possibilities as something workable. There’s some famous quote, I think from Richard Dawkins, which is more or less “Be open-minded, but not so open that your brain falls out.” Wondering how things work and having a spirit of enquiry keeps discovery constant; however, that is no reason to hang on to the impossible or the unworkable. The historical precedent is that poorly understood natural phenomena attributed to the supernatural (for example, the various cultural pantheons to whom natural forces and processes were attributed via individual deities, as opposed to monotheism where a single entity controls everything – this seems to be what you’re postulating) eventually become explained by scientific means. The age of simply hypothesising something which sounds about right is long gone. The age of empiricism demands proof, repeatable observation, before a possibility becomes workable. Otherwise the whole thing simply collapses in disarray under the weight of countless “possibilities” which can only be accepted because they cannot be completely disproved.

That is the nature of science, of course. It operates on inductive reasoning, on extending an assumption from a necessarily limited sample group. However, deductive reasoning – which begins from an axiomatic statement and is thus considered to be more reliable than inductive logic – is never grounded in the real world. Only logical and mathematical constructs can be axiomatic. A famous deduction is “All are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal.” However, this deduction relies on inductive empiricism for its axiom. The only way of looking at the world and the universe is by the scientific method; only abstracts, like logic and maths (human constructions) produce axiomatically true results – and these results are definitionally divorced from the real world.

“Where did the first energy source come from?”

We’re working on it 🙂

We don’t know. The origins of the universe are pretty trippy to consider. However, given the aforementioned historical precedent of supernatural explanations being superceded, it’s reasonable to assume that we will eventually know – and not knowing NOW doesn’t mean we will NEVER know. Also, not knowing the origins of the universe is comparatively simple when compared to using God as an explanation and then trying to work out how God created itself, or all the other attendant problems with using God to explain anything.

“Do humans have any energy source beyond physics? Why? Why not?”

If human beings have an energy source beyond physics it’s pointless to even speculate as it necessarily wouldn’t be something we could even detect. If we could detect it, it would be an aspect of known physical laws and not metaphysical or supernatural in nature. So, no, humans do not have an energy source beyond physics because the question doesn’t have any actual meaning – you’re asking to verify something which definitionally, as soon as it is verified, STOPS being beyond physics.

“Bear in mind that without self-evidence there is none. With no evidence, you rely on belief. Therefore proof is belief. If belief is your source of proof why can’t you believe in god and use belief as proof.” (I nearly pooped myself when I read that argument.)

That’s a little too much of a logical leap though. Proof is NOT belief. Proof is proof. Belief implies some kind of dependence on the believer for continuation, and gravity doesn’t care if you believe in it or not. Scientists don’t rely on belief or faith, and neither do the things the scientific method discovers.
Your argument dictates that, if belief is a proof, EVERYTHING is real and possible. Jeremy, the unicorn inside Jupiter who controls gravity (but only in this solar system) is real because I have belief in him – and thus proof. And, of course, the concept of God that I believe in that forces all possible Gods to NOT exist (including yours) must be real, because I have belief.

Belief is not the source of proof for scientists, or for me. Repeatable, observable testing and evidence is proof. Proof that is consistent with all previously gathered research. Using belief as proof not only invites a great deal of confusion, it’s demonstrably untrue, and it indicates a lack of any REAL proof for claims. If your proof is belief, you are admitting that you have no concrete evidence on which to go on.


So now, we wait . . .