Monday, April 28, 2014

Hate Articles? Yes Please!

Well, I got my first series (a two-parter!) of hate articles spouted against me. I suppose I riled him up, given that he wrote two about me (one of which I was arguably the sole particular subject). I feel famous, what can I say? J In all seriousness, while I don’t typically write articles defending me from what someone in a combox says (or even when I had a different writer insist I was evil), I’ll delve briefly into this. The issue of God and gratuitous suffering came up in a comment thread, where it was claimed the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of gratuitous suffering. Logical incompatibility is another way of stating that there is a proposition or set of propositions that cannot all be true in reality, due to the set’s contradictory nature. So take, for example, the following “inconsistent triad”:

1.     All human actions are determined.
2.     No determined actions are free.
3.     Some human actions are free.

All three of these may seem plausible to some, but it’s important to note that not all three can be held logically. This is because if (1) and (2) are true, then (3) cannot be; if (2) and (3) are true, then (1) cannot be; finally, if (1) and (3) are true, then (2) cannot be. Now, the premise is that an omnibenevolent God is incompatible with gratuitous suffering. So that means we have two premises:

4.     There is an omnibenevolent God.
5.     There is gratuitous suffering.

It’s not clear why (4) and (5) are contradictory in the sense we gave above. This was the dialectic that this person and I were engaged with. The atheist asserted this claim as part of a broader argument, and I just wanted it to be defended. I am, as much as I can be, a man of my word, and so when I say that’s what I need to continue, then that’s what I need to continue: a reason to think something is true. Now he took that as a subtle admission that I had no answer. I suppose I did have no answer—because there was no argument. Now, I’m being a little rhetorical, as I do have dispositional answers. But so what? When one asserts a logical incompatibility, if it is successful, it won’t matter what anyone says! So the crucial issue is whether or not (4) and (5) form a logically contradictory set, and it’s not at all clear how they do. It looks like there might be another premise needed (since the meaning of the premises do not exclude the other analytically). The only one that I got was something like this (I paraphrase very closely, and only because the formulation he suggests differs from the original claim, and could be construed as another claim entirely; in any case, it more faithfully follows the wording of the argument):

6.     If (4) and (5) are compatible, then it is indistinguishable from evil.

It has never been very clear what “it” means, though I suspect it means “omnibenevolence.” It could mean “gratuitous suffering,” but unless or until I am corrected I will believe the former. So now we have this set:

4. There is an omnibenevolent God.
5. There is gratuitous suffering.
6. If (4) and (5) are compatible, then it is indistinguishable from evil.

But notice, it’s not clear how one cannot hold (4-6). What contradiction is engendered from this set of beliefs? (6) isn’t particularly likely to be true, either. I attempted to illustrate this by arguing that the form of the support or argument for (6) is something like, “X is inscrutable; therefore, X is incoherent.” That’s a non-sequitur. His reply was that if we accept this, then other things, like the metaphysical belief that something cannot come from nothing is also a non-sequitur.

But why think this? Surely, if someone were to argue “Something coming from nothing is inscrutable; therefore, something coming from nothing is incoherent,” it would be. But who argues that? Not any scholarly defender of the principle of whom I am aware. In fact, not only is the positive principle not claimed as inscrutable, but it is claimed as positively known! No one argues that “if something comes from nothing, then it is indistinguishable from something coming from something; therefore, something coming from nothing is incoherent.” Rather, there are arguments such that if something comes from nothing, it’s unknown what prevents it from happening. But it’s then inferred that whatever this principle that stops it would be, it seems to be something cannot come from nothing. There are also intuitive arguments, blah, blah, blah.

In the post, he somehow takes this discussion to be indicative of “skeptical theology,” but this has it precisely backwards! In the dialectic, it is he who has claimed the skeptical knowledge (vis-à-vis the “indistinguishable” claim in [6]), and so his response here appears bizarre. Now, it again should be emphasized that (4-6) do not logically contradict each other. It seems, rather, what he needs is another premise or claim. Let’s give him the best one we’ve got:

7.     Omnibenevolence is not indistinguishable from evil.

Now, (4-7) cannot all be held, but this is not because of the meanings of terms. It’s because (6-7) form the major and minor premises of an argument that entails:

8.     Therefore, (4) and (5) are not compatible.

If the premises are all true (6-7), then in every possible world is the conclusion (8) true, and in no possible world are both (4-5) exemplified. This is derived from the laws of logic plus truths about the world, and so is not derived from meaning of (4) and (5) alone. Aside from the attendant problems of (7) (such as: if God were to provide comfort to a person, it’s difficult to see how this is indistinguishable from evil. Perhaps we have no way of knowing for certain that we’re not being tricked by an evil demon, but that lack of certainty won’t be sufficient to destroy knowledge in general), I think (6) doesn’t have a lot going for it. I’d need to see a defense of why our epistemology drives our ontology. For that is what (6) requires. Moreover, there also appear to be clear counterexamples: two truly identical twins appear before me, and they conspire to play a trick, to make me think I am dealing with one person. I have no way of distinguishing that they are twins (since they appear to me one at a time). Should I therefore conclude that the claim there are twins is logically incoherent? Surely not!

Anyway, I wanted to frame the issue for my readers so that they could see. Perhaps he wouldn’t argue much that way at all, or doesn’t define certain terms the way I have, or thinks all of this is quite in order, or doesn’t mean logical incoherence at all but merely a basic argument against God, etc. All I am interested in is getting a good reason why I should believe that God and gratuitous evil are logically incoherent.[1] Even in our most charitable interpretation, we instead saw a mere deductive argument that lacked good reason to think it true.

[1] For those who may still be confused, a logical incoherence is a modal claim. It claims not merely that something is or is not the case, but rather that it could not be the case. Obviously, some deductive arguments establish modal claims, and even deduction itself is modally relevant. But it’s important to preserve the distinction.

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