Friday, July 27, 2012

No Evil Before Creation, No Evil After

The philosophical washing machine. It cleans dubious concepts until they look like "ideas you really ought to consider."

Philosophically-minded theists may think Alvin Plantinga dispensed with the logical problem of evil for all time back in the 1970s.

I disagree, but even if it were true, then we would have several more ways of looking at the problem of evil. In other words, it's still a problem.

Philosopher J. L. Schellenberg lays out the case for a new logical problem of evil. Basically, it runs like this:
1. God is the greatest possible being.
2. God's reality is entirely to be distinguished from that of any world.
3. Prior to creation (whether ‘prior’ be taken logically or temporally) there
is no evil in God of any kind.
4. There is evil in the world.

The fourth statement is logically inconsistent with the conjunction of the first three.
Schellenberg's reasoning hinges on statement #3 and the concept of prior goodness. Given #3 and the previous two statements, he says, what should have happened is "no evil before creation, no evil after."

But that's not what happened. We got evil. Therefore, something is wrong. Maybe it's with the way we think about God. Maybe it's the way we think about evil. Maybe it's our logic. But something's gone awry.

The whole paper is worth reading and thinking about. Some atheists will carp that the existence of God or something like God is asserted without evidence. They would be right, but the point of the game, as it were, is to assume God exists. Over 1,500 years of philosophical rumination on the question of God's existence forms the implied backdrop of what Schellenberg is doing.

Yet the really interesting comment comes at the very end, where Schellenberg suggests that maybe our idea of God is just wrong:
It is only because of its own special way of filling out the more general religious proposition I have elsewhere called ultimism – the idea that there is a reality triply ultimate: metaphysically, axiologically, and soteriologically – that theism gets into such trouble. Take away the assumptions of ONTOLOGICAL INDEPENDENCE and PRIOR PURITY and the game is on again – though it is likely to be a very different game.

This option, of beginning again, perhaps more humbly, with UNSURPASSABLE GREATNESS alone, is not one that atheists often mention. That is because atheists are usually also metaphysical naturalists, and thus opposed to all religious ideas. I think this orientation is mired in error. In part this is because I think we humans are still at the very beginning of what may be an extremely long process of religious adventuring on our planet. If that is so, and if I am right about the seriousness of the problem evil presents for theism, then not only should we be prepared to let go of God. We should also gird ourselves for religious explorations and discoveries not yet dreamt in any philosophy.
Schellenberg sure seems to be advocating a different kind of deity, super-great yet part of the world and not all-good. I'd love to get a theist's take on Schellenberg's proposal, but to me it seems that he unfairly thinks atheists--even metaphysical naturalists--would automatically reject the idea in full.

I consider myself a metaphysical naturalist. I would love to hear the argument for the existence of Schellenberg's unsurpassably great god that is part of the world and not all-good. I don't see right now how such a good would conflict with metaphysical naturalism, but it sure seems like such a god ought to be apprehendable and comprehensible. If so, my desire for empirical verification could be satisfied.

But this is my critique of Schellenberg: he doesn't address at all how we might get to his god, logically or empirically. He simply asks us to entertain the fluffy idea of "beginning again."

This is a problem because we atheists are always being called militant and hyper skeptical and disagreeable. So, if I'm not going to be a close-minded atheist, well, how exactly should I "begin again" with a workable god concept? You're the deep thinker, Schellenberg, so pony up with the goods. Again and again, we're advised to just close our eyes and imagine the best possible dude of all, and that's God.

No, it doesn't work that way. I reserve the right not to take the God idea very seriously until someone can offer evidence stronger than thinking about God really hard.


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