Wednesday, January 17, 2007

An example of my last point...

I don't often comment on other people's blogs simply because I don't have the time to engage in what always seems to turn into prolonged debates, but I still try to browse them from time to time to see what people are saying. Today I came across something that John Loftus recently wrote about a debate he was having with David Wood on the "problem" of suffering, and I thought I'd include it here because it happens to illustrate the point I just made on this blog. If you read my last entry, you'll recall that I pointed out that a classic logical problem made by many atheists is that they insist on arguing from only one arena (i.e., philosophy, etc.) even if their argument is contradicted from evidence in another arena. I found an interesting defense of this position by Mr. Loftus on his blog ( as follows:

David Wood:
"To put the matter differently, a theist could say, “I have no clue why God allows evil, but I’m going to believe that he has his reasons anyway,” and he would be no worse off than the atheist when the latter says, “I have no clue how life could have formed on its own, but I’m going to believe it anyway.” Nevertheless, since theists can offer at least some plausible reasons for God to allow suffering, they are on much better ground than atheists."

John Loftus:
As I recently said, arguments for the existence of God, are not strictly relevant to our specific debate issue, since I already hypothetically granted you for the purpose of the debate that your God exists. Think about this. The question I was addressing can be accurately phrased like this: Given that your omni-God exists, then why is there intense suffering in this world? And my conclusion is that intense suffering in this world makes the existence of your omni-God implausible (or improbable), regardless of the arguments for the existence of God, which provides for you the Bayesian background factors leading you personally to believe despite the extent of intense suffering in this world.

(A side note here from me: How exactly is Mr. Loftus "granting" that Wood's God exists if he is "concluding" that His existence is improbable? In deductive logic, which Loftus appears to be using, if you assume something to be true in your argument, your conclusion cannot negate that assumption. In other words, how can God's existence be "given", but he still concludes that God does not exist? Essentially Loftus' argument is as follows: (1) God exists. (2) There is too much suffering in the world. Therefore, (3) God does not exist. There are certainly some unspoken sub-premises here, but my point is simply to ask how can (3) possibly be our conclusion when (1) is one of our premises on which our conclusion must be based? In reality, Mr. Loftus did not "grant" anything. Now back to Mr. Loftus' comments)

John Loftus:
I was arguing from evil, not from the non-existence of your omni-God hypothesis. Just read Howard-Snyder's book called The Evidential Argument From Evil, to see this. The book does not contain one single argument for the existence of God, either pro or con, except as it relates to the problem of evil itself. I see no chapters in it on the design or cosmological or ontological arguments, for instance. The arguments were strictly dealing with how the omni-God hypothesis relates to the issue of suffering. If that hypothesis is true, then is this the kind of world we should expect? The debate was (and is) over whether the evidential argument from evil makes the omni-God hypothesis implausible (or improbable) on its own terms.

This "logic" truly boggles me. Please understand I do not mean to be "calling out" Mr. Loftus on this, because he is not the only one who does it. He just happens to be the example I most recently came across. Mr. Loftus is encouraging us, when examining suffering, to completely ignore any of the other evidence for God and just look at the "problem" of suffering. This is the same logical error that atheists make in the so-called "Euthyphro dilemma" (see my article on that topic on the Ten Minas website). They limit the "playing field", limiting the theist's options, then claim victory when the theist doesn't produce what they deem to be sufficient evidence to refute them.

As regards suffering, the theist looks at the overwhelming evidence for God's existence that comes from elsewhere and recognizes that if we know God exists based upon the other evidence, then there must be an explanation for suffering (there is also an article on suffering on the Ten Minas web site that proposes some of these explanations). We cannot pick and choose what evidence we want to examine and that which we want to ignore. The evidence is what it is. But Mr. Loftus is encouraging us to do just that. You see, he wants to conclude, from all the suffering in the world, that God does not exist. You can point out to him over and over again all the other overwhelming evidence that God exists, but instead of re-examining his position on suffering, he simply wants to ignore that evidence entirely, claiming it has no role in any discussion of suffering. Of course it does! You see, nothing about suffering in and of itself necessarily means God does not exist, nor does it even necessarily mean a loving God does not exist (as I point out in the article, there may very well be some "loving" reasons for allowing suffering). Even the atheist must concede, from a logical standpoint, that it is at least THEORETICALLY possible for a loving reason for suffering to exist, even if we cannot come up with one at the moment. So if evidence from other arenas overwhelmingly indicates that God does exist, you cannot simply shut your eyes to it. Essentially, this type of attitude is trying to make the evidence fit your conclusion. You have to look at ALL the evidence. We can only draw accurate conclusions if we look at the big picture.

In order to better illustrate my point, allow me to propose a fictional, hypothetical discussion:

Atheist: I don't think God exists because of all the suffering in the world.

Theist: But look at the Big Bang and the necessity for some kind of causal entity for the universe.

Atheist: That's irrelevant. There's simply too much suffering in the world.

Theist: But look at all the fine tuning of the universe.

Atheist: Irrelevant.

Theist: How about the impossibility of objective morality without God?

Atheist: Again, that doesn't matter. There's too much suffering.

Theist: Well then, how do you explain all this evidence for God's existence? How can you conclude that there is no God simply based on suffering without even looking at all this other evidence?

Atheist: I don't need to. There's too much suffering.

Now please don't misunderstand me. I do not claim that atheists do not present counterarguments to these other issues. Of course they do. My point is simply that it is a completely illogical argument technique to try to limit the playing field and claim that other evidence for God's existence is irrelevant to the suffering question. This is in essence putting blinders on. If we have other evidence that is sufficient to conclude that God exists, then we cannot automatically conclude that God does not exist based upon suffering alone. To do so would lead to a logical contradiction: one set of evidence saying God does exist while another saying He does not. Anyone who understands the law of non-contradiction would know that both cannot be true at the same time. In order to advance a consistent position, the athiest should claim that the best the theist can do is to create uncertainty as to God's existence. In other words, they should say, "But even if we assume that all your other evidence tends to indicate God's existence, suffering tends to show otherwise, so we simply cannot draw any conclusions" (a conclusion which, of course, I disagree with because I believe there are plenty of explanations for suffering, but at least this would open the entire playing field up for debate instead of arbitrarily trying to limit the realm of discussion). Instead of doing this, though, too many atheists try to limit the discussion to one particular area, and an area in which they believe they will "win", so that they can claim victory even though all of the evidence has not been examined.

In order to draw an accurate conclusion you must examine ALL the evidence. Otherwise you run the risk of coming to an incorrect conclusion because you've only looked at one small part of the overall picture. No matter which side of the issue you fall on, I hope you will give a fair hearing to all the evidence, and not try to limit yourself in any way.


Anonymous said...

I agree that we should consider all the available evidence when deciding what to believe...all of it. But when we are debating the resurrection of Jesus on it's own terms, then it's illegitimate to bring down the full weight of your whole worldview on that particular issue, otherwise we would no longer be debating the resurrection of Jesus. We would be debating Christian theism. That's my point, since David and I were debating one particular issue within the total set of beliefs we each had.

As far as my granting the existence of David's God goes, here's the reasoning. I hypothetically granted for the sake of argument that his omni-God exists. Now with that as a given (hence no need to refer to the design argument) he needed to explain why this present world was created. If his God exists, then he should be able to explain intense suffering in our world. Then as the argument proceeds, I will argue that David cannot sufficiently make his case, and if he cannot, then the conclusion is that this omni-God does not exist as he understands it to exist based upon the problem of evil. He is certainly entitled to believe his God exists based upon other grounds, of course, like the design argument, since we were not debating that issue. But bringing the design argument into the debate is skirting the issue of whether or not he can explain the existence of intense suffering based upon his belief in the omni-God hypothesis.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thank you for replying, John. And this may illustrate why I'm not a big fan of oral debates. As a practical matter, due to time constraints, you may have to limit the realm of the conversation. But the fact that it is a practical necessity does not mean that information is logically irrelevant.

Here's my problem. Probably the most common reason people give for disbelief in God is the problem of suffering, and they use it as though, in and of itself, it disproves the existence of a loving God. But it does not.

Here is a simple illustration. Suppose you are in a room with three other people. Two are standing up against a wall, and in front of them is a man who is holding a gun in one hand and a piece of paper in the other. He turns to you and says, "You get to choose. Either I will shoot person #1 in the head and kill him, or I will give person #2 a paper cut. What will it be?"

Now I am assuming person #2 is not a hemophiliac and is not going to die from a paper cut. What do you choose? If you acknowledge that the better choice is to give person #2 a paper cut, then you have acknowledged that the concept of a "greater good" exists, and sometimes some degree of suffering may be justified for the greater good.

This is important because once you acknowledge the possibility of a greater good, you also must admit that it is AT LEAST THEORETICALLY possible that there could be a “loving” reason to allow the suffering in the world, even if we do not know what that reason may be.

This is crucial to any conversation on suffering because it shows that suffering in the world, in and of itself, does not disprove the existence of a loving God. But far too many people believe that it does.

The best you can argue is that it makes the existence of a God less likely, but once you concede that point you have to allow in other evidence that makes the existence of God more likely. It is impossible to have a thorough and accurate conversation on suffering without also discussing the other evidence. Here is why. If the other evidence makes the existence of God overwhelmingly likely, and the existence of suffering does not negate God’s existence, then our evaluation of the weight of the other evidence is directly relevant to what conclusions we are going to draw from the evidence of suffering. If we otherwise “know” God exists, then we can only conclude that there must be an explanation for suffering, even if we do not know what it is.

As to your second point, you said, “If his God exists, then [Mr. Wood] should be able to explain intense suffering in our world.” Why? I just showed you that it is possible to conclude that there is an explanation for the suffering, even if we don’t know what that explanation is. You also need to be careful with this argument, because (like I believe is true in many other atheistic arguments) it gets you into trouble if applied to the atheistic argument in another arena. I could just as easily say, “If the life was created on its own, the atheist should be able to explain how this happened.” The mere fact that we cannot explain something does not necessarily mean we can logically conclude that it is not true. This is what Mr. Wood was pointing out in his comment to you.

One classic illustration of this is in the article on the Ten Minas site dealing with whether the universe needs a cause, and the claim that the theist must explain how a universe was created out of nothing; i.e., with no raw materials from which to build it. While it is true that this seems counter-intuitive, other evidence indicates that it is an undeniable fact, whether you are a theist or atheist. Matter came into being at the Big Bang, so whether or not you think God was responsible, matter was created from non-matter, even if we do not know how it happened. So when evaluating the evidence in any one arena, you always must ask if our conclusions on that one area should be influenced by the evidence from any other arena. Otherwise we run the risk of drawing an incorrect conclusion.

You claim that Mr. Wood is “skirting the issue”, but what exactly is the “issue”? I understand, John, that you may be arguing simply that he cannot explain suffering, but far too many people think that the existence of suffering disproves the existence of God. It does not. So given that this is the conclusion many people will draw, it is perfectly legitimate for Mr. Wood to show that this is not a logically necessary conclusion.

This is why I think it is always inappropriate to try to limit the realm of conversation and I’m not a big fan of oral debates. Other evidence for God’s existence is definitely relevant to the issue of suffering as to the question of whether it disproves the existence of a loving God.

Anonymous said...

It's just not the nature of debates, my friend. The question is how a Christian theist can explain intense suffering, and the argument I made that goes with it here.

And with your illustration, I agree that there are greater goods, but my question is what are the greater goods with intense suffering. As far as I'm concerned, a good God who is omniscient, would've just put that guy in his bed due to the flu that day, and if he persisted in his evils ways, take him out. Isn't that what teachers do on the playground? They sit an unruly kid out so the rest can play. So do the police. Why doesn't God? What are the reasons why teachers and policemen are better than God? I have thought of all of the possible answers to that question and I simply cannot think of any reason at all. So I conclude that a good God doesn't exist, despite the arguments for the existence of God, which I have also examined in depth and conclude they do not show what theists claim they do. In fact, if a theist wants to press me on how this universe exists, which I have no answer for, then I can easily press them to explain how a 3 in 1 being could have always existed without learning anything or growing incrementally. Everything I know has a beginning, therefore an eternally existing God has not existed forever. So I consider these arguments a wash. All we have left are the empirical facts...the facts of evil. I'm looking at these facts and asking myself whether God exists, while you assume prior to examining the facts that God exists and you are trying to explain them. My point is that even if you can explain intense suffering (which I do not believe you can) that this is not the world we would expect if there was a good God. These different perspectives make all the difference in the world.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Well, now we are getting a little bit sidetracked. I also have put forth my explanations for suffering in an article on the Ten Minas site, so I won't rehash them here. As for the suggestion that an eternal God could not exist, I actually believe that logic shows that such an eternal being MUST exist. That evidence is detailed in the first two articles of the "Argument for Christianity" on the site (as well as the detailed article on the Kalam argument under the philosophy section). Without rehashing it all here, the basic point is that if the Big Bang necessitates a cause for the universe (which I believe it does), then that cause cannot be subject to time, as time itself was created at the Big Bang. So the cause of the universe also created time itself. We are left with a literal timeless cause.

But I did not intend to get into a debate on whether suffering proves/disproves the existence of God, because that would take forever. My point was simply that the other evidence for the existence of God is a relevant consideration when evaluating what the evidence of suffering actually shows.

You illustrated my point when you called God "omniscient" (for anyone reading this who does not know the term, that means all-knowing). Is man omniscient? The answer, of course, is no. So if God is omnisicent and man is not, why should man assume that we should be able to figure out why suffering is allowed to happen? Why should we be determined to figure out the answer, despite what other evidence may show, before we will acknowledge God's existence? After all, if God is infinite and man is finite, isn't it logical to conclude that the finite should never be able to fully comprehend the infinite (which, but the way, also addresses your point about the Trinity)? In fact, I would argue that if we were actually to gain a full grasp on God and His motives, we would have then proven that an infinite God does NOT exist, because logically we should not be able to fully comprehend Him.

So when you impose a requirement that the theist MUST provide an explanation for suffering before you can accept that God exists, you are essentially requiring the finite to explain the infinite. But ironically, if the theist were to succeed in doing this, you could then say that he has actually disproven God's existence because the finite mind should not be able to fully comprehend the infinite, so by offering a complete explanation he has disproven the existence of an infinite God.

Of course, I believe that at least basic explanations for suffering can be given, but I do not believe it is ever possible for us finite creatures to understand what the full implications of the greater good are. Only the infinite mind can comprehend that.

Thank you John. It always is refreshing and educational to get your take on things.


Anonymous said...

You too. Whatever you think the words "infinite" or "omniscient" means, neither term should lead us to think God's ways are contrary to our notions of what a loving action is. After all, God purportedly describes what love is for the Christian in the Bible. So God's ways must be in accordance with the loving ways he commands the Christian to behave. And therefore, I do not have to have omniscience to see whether or not the empirical evidence is against believing in a God of love, especially if God desires that I believe in him and his ways. Why would God give us a standard of love and then create a world that goes against that standard in every reasonable way, especially if he desires us to believe in him? Like I said, this world is not the kind of world we would expect if such a loving God exists. You assume he exists and then are forced to explain intense suffering away by appealing to God's infinte and omniscient ways, even though those ways cannot be contrary to the ethic he himself is supposed to adhere to.

So, again, why doesn't God act better than a playground monitor or a policeman? You don't know? That's right. Why not? That's what God himself purportedly would want a Christian teacher or policeman to do. Why doesn't he himself do this? I conclude he isn't good, or all-powerful, or omniscient.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

But God's actions are not contrary to what our notion of a loving action should be. That's what I demonstrated by the concept of a greater good. As I demonstrated, it is impossible to conclude from an action alone whether or not it is loving. Allowing someone to give a paper cut to someone else would not appear loving, but in the context I demonstrated, it could be. Is giving someone flowers loving? Generally we would say yes. But if you give them to someone you know to be deathly allergic, that's not very loving. In order to label something as loving or not you need to understand the context.

Actions in this world can have any number of possible consequences. So in order to fully understand the full context of any action, you must be able to understand all the potential consequences. Only an all-knowing mind can do that. Finite human minds can only understand a certain number of forseeable consequences to any action. So we draw our conclusions about whether something is loving based upon the limited amount of information we can process. But it is a mistake to take our inherently limited knowledge and use it to conclude that an infinite mind does not exist.

Isn't it reasonable that an infinite mind would be capable of comprehending more of the consequences than a finite mind? And isn't it then also reasonable that the infinite mind may arrive at a different (and more well-informed) conclusion than the finite mind? So its not that God's actions are not in accord with our notion of loving. We all understand that actions which we may not otherwise consider to be loving can become so depending on the context. God's actions are perfectly in accord with this concept. We are just incapable of understanding the full context. So it is our conclusion that is wrong, not God's.

You may not realize it, but you essentially conceded part of my point in your very first post. You said, "I agree that we should consider all the available evidence when deciding what to believe." But you do not have all the information when deciding whether or not an action is loving. You cannot understand all the consequences. Only an infinite mind can have all that information. A finite mind cannot conclude that an infinite mind does not exist when it is incapable of comprehending all the information relevant to that determination.

Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

You said, "I agree that we should consider all the available evidence when deciding what to believe."

Yes I did, when it came to believing or not believing in God.

But you do not have all the information when deciding whether or not an action is loving. You cannot understand all the consequences. Only an infinite mind can have all that information.

My question is that even with this purported omniscience of God's I cannot see why he created the law of predation in the natural world, and I cannot understand why he would allow a child to slowly die of leukemia or inoperable throat cancer and then be cast into hell (according to some). But I can easily think of ways to improve this world, so I ask that if God is omniscient why can't he see what I see? Besides, if he wants me to believe in him, then why does he create a world that causes me to disbelieve? I cannot assess whether he exists by a standard that I cannot access, and I must follow what I know. To ask me to believe despite the evidence from evil is to ask me to walk without my feet, or to talk without my tongue.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Well, I think we're starting to go around in circles because I believe I've already addressed these concerns. My problem with your logic is as follows: You are trying to disprove the existence of an omniscient God, and for your evidence you say "I cannot see" and "I cannot understand". But the "I" in these statements is a finite mind (a very intelligent mind, I grant you, John, but finite nonetheless). You keep coming back to using a finite understanding to disprove an infinite God.

The general moral standard is the same: Do the greater good. This is the standard by which God acts and it is also the standard by which God asks us to live. So there is no inconsistency. The only difference is in our capabilities to figure out what the greater good is. God is all-knowing, so He will always know. We are not, so we won't.

In fact, once you concede that ...
(1) there are circumstances that otherwise would not seem loving, but in context may become so,
and you also concede that ...
(2) humans have a finite capability to understand the full context,
then logically you must also concede that ...
(3) there will be circumstances which will seem unloving to us, but if we were capable of understanding more of the context, we would see that they are actually loving.

You are in essence asking God to step into your finite understanding and act as you would act based upon your limited information instead of acting as He would act with His unlimited understanding.

You say, "I can easily think of ways to improve this world." Can you really? Are you sure? How can you possibly be sure? Again, you have only a finite understanding of the consequences, so something that may seem like an improvement based upon our limited understanding may not actually be an improvement "in the long run." You ask why God can't see what you see. Its not that He can't see what you see. It's that He sees MORE than you see. So He arrives at different conclusions than you do.

And this brings us full circle. You said "I cannot assess whether he exists by a standard that I cannot access", and I agree that you cannot access the degree of omniscience that God enjoys. This is why the evidence from other arenas is absolutely essential to consider when evaluating the "problem" of suffering. Because of our limited capability to understand all the consequences of actions, it is impossible to ever conclude that suffering disproves the existence of God. Logic tells us that we can never have sufficient information to draw that conclusion. So in the end, suffering gets us nowhere. It could exist with or without a loving God. As a result, we have no option but to turn elsewhere for our evidence.

Anonymous said...

Full circle? I think we missed a step. Anyway, we'll discuss this again sometime. Thanks.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thank you, John.

dolphison said...

I think the arguement againt God based on suffering is nonsesnse. Is it really that hard to come up with a valid reason for suffering? Without suffering how would we be able to gauge the opposite: pleasure. Suffering allows us to appreciate things that are pleasureable. Without suffering pleasure is taken for granted and loses its luster.

I am an agnostic and I don't understand why Mr. Loftus would waste his time on this debate when there are more fertile grounds to plow. For example:

The Christian God is evil because he sends all the people who fail to accept Jesus to Hell. It is simple and straightforward. It cannot be refuted because the basic tenet of the Christian Religion is that salvation is only granted to those who accept Christ as their lord and saviour. If a Christian wants to argue against this than they either:
1.Don't understand the most basic tenet of their faith and the horrific consequences of such a belief. or
2. They aren't Christian because they fail to accept the most basic tenet of the Christain faith.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

Thank you for your comments. I agree with your assessment on suffering. In fact, in February of last year I had a discussion with John on his blog about suffering in which I raised the same point you did, namely that pain provides us with the frame of reference to understand pleasure.

Obviously I disagree with your conclusion about the Christian God. Notice that I do not disagree with the premise that non-believers go to hell. You are right that this is a central tenet of the Christian faith (although there is a lot of debate within Christianity about exactly what that means; i.e., what is the nature of hell?). However, I do not agree that your conclusion necessarily follows from your premise. Essentially your argument is that:
(1) God sends all non-believers to hell; therefore
(2) God is evil.
However, you are missing a premise, specifically "Sending all non-believers to hell is per se evil." That's the premise where I think you would get a lot of challenges from Christians. It would be a huge other discussion to go into this in detail, but just to give you a taste, one view of hell is that it is eternal separation from God. Under this view, you would only be happy in heaven if you desire to live eternally with God to begin with. If you don't want this, eternity with God would in itself be hell for you. Another view would get into the concept of God's justice and say that God does not want to send anyone to hell, but in order to be wholly just He must.

The problem is that it is logically impossible to say that sending non-believers to hell is per se evil if we do not understand precisely what that entails (i.e., we do not have a full grasp on the nature of hell). If there is a REASON for people going to hell, then it is not per se evil, and we cannot conclude that God is evil for allowing this to happen.

Thank you again for your comments.


dolphison said...


It is true that we cannot have a full grasp of Hell, but from the words of Jesus himself we can gain understanding.

MAT 3:42 Jesus says: "And shall cast them into a FURNACE OF FIRE: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth."

MAT 25:41 Jesus says: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting FIRE,. . ."

I feel that this lays it out clearly. I think it is fair to conclude from this that Hell is either a place of eternal suffering or a place of destruction causing eternal annihilation of the soul.

I will agree that it is impossible to draw a factual conclusion as to whether this banishment to Hell is an evil action. When we examine an action from a morally subjective point of view it is impossible to say who is right and who is wrong.

I am saying that from my moral perspective I find the Christian God to be unreasonable in choosing who to send to Hell. I am also saying that from my perspective his actions are evil because they are unreasonable and the consequences are unfair.

I cannot prove I am right and you are wrong. I am appealing to the individual who will ultimately make their own decision.

Ten Minas Ministries said...

See the comments under the "Divinity of Christ" post. We were touching on the same topics in both, so I just put my comments there so we won't be trying to essentially carry on the same conversation in two places.