For those who can't get a copy of Opus here is the article in full.
Arguments Over the Existence of God. Part 1.
During O Week, the Philosophy Club was just one group on campus handing out a number of different flyers. Of the hundreds that were handed out, we received back a handful of written reactions. It is my intention to reply, as it were, to these responses, mainly by pointing out how they are not adequate solutions to the issue at hand.
The bulk of the responses were to a flyer that quoted David Hume explaining what is known in philosophy as the ‘Problem of Evil’. Here is what Hume had to say on the matter:
“If the evil in the world is from the intention of the Deity, then he is not benevolent. If the evil in the world is contrary to his intention, then he is not omnipotent. But it is either in accordance with his intention or contrary to it. Therefore the Deity is not benevolent or not omnipotent”(Hume, Dialogues Concerning Religion).
The problem is easy to see. By this argument, an all-powerful being that allows tragic, painful and unpleasant events to occur is not benevolent. If a being means well, and would bring about a different state of affairs, but can’t, then it is not omnipotent, that is to say it is not an all-powerful being. Both these attributes seem central to what people tell us that a supreme being is like, which is why this problem never seems to entirely go away.
One of our first respondents wrote:
“This assumes that God is unable to use the evil in the world to his good ends.”
This response falls short of a solution by a very long way. It might well be true that God could use evil events, actions or means to his good ends, as the response seems to suggest. But this an omnipotent being, right? He could have used good means to achieve his ends. Or bizarre chicken-dependant means. Or no means at all, since an all-powerful being could just attain their ends directly by willing them to be so. Hume assumes nothing; he just asks why an omnipotent being would choose such objectionable methods.
A more comprehensive attempt was fielded by one of our blue-shirted faithful brethren:
“But what if the Deity’s cheifest desire was not benevolence – but love. Then he must allow free will for us to love. Similarly, his will is that we have our own will. This means we can endeavour for or against him – our choice. Since we work against him there is evil in the world.”
This is a better effort. The appeal to ‘free will’ has been a standard response to this problem for a long time now. In one form or other it is at the core of many of the most enduring attempts to solve the problem. But does it work? At a glance it is pretty good. If we have a choice, then it seems plausible to suggest that these choices are not always going to be the right ones and people are going to suffer as a consequence. God has to let us be free to be bastards to each other. But think a bit more. There are a lot of things we aren’t free to do, such as levitate on command, digest quartz, or transform into wild animals. Some thinkers have suggested that since we are already not completely free there is nothing contradictory about having free will and not being able to hurt (physically at least) our fellow beings. On top of this it is worth revisiting the first response. It may not be logically incoherent to suggest that a really omnipotent being could have made us so we never made the wrong choice, yet were always still free. At the very least God could intervene occasionally, by giving the occasional evil dictator a premature, but painless death. If I could intervene to prevent a violent crime, with no danger to myself but didn’t, people would consider me a monster or an idiot. The question in many people’s minds is this: If it is wrong for me to not intervene, then why is it not wrong for God?
Arguments about ‘free will’ and how it relates to this problem are somewhat unresolved. Questions to consider would be: Is the ‘free will’ humanity possesses proportional to the suffering that it experiences? Is the freedom of one particularly nasty person, eg Stalin or Hitler, worth more than the suffering of the millions of victims they were responsible for?
There is one area, however, where this response clearly fails. Natural evils. I would have thought that so soon after a natural disaster, I would not see anyone fall into that trap. Sure, we could admit that us having our own free will could be responsible for us being crappy to each other. But it does not account for the suffering caused by earthquakes, and any number of other natural phenomena that we do not, (for the most part), have any control over. Our ‘free will’ and the pain and heartbreak these events can cause have no relation whatsoever, and hence is no defence.
For the same reasons, the following response is also inadequate:
“Maybe individual human discretion just gets in the way of her benevolence and omnipotence.”
Maybe. But how exactly could one “get in the way of” a supreme being that is credited with creating our entire universe? I apologise for any offence caused by using a quote that assumes the gender of God; if I had written it myself, I would have said He/She or She/He etc. If God does exist, then maybe it is a She. But it has no effect on this problem.
The last response I want to look at was to our “Babel Fish” flyer. This entertaining bit of logic has its origins in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams. For the uninitiated, the Babel fish is a fictitious animal; if you stick one in your ear you can understand any language you hear. I can’t believe anyone took it seriously enough to write back. Any way, here is the argument, adapted by myself from the radio script:
I. God refuses to prove that he exists, as proof denies faith, and without faith He is nothing.
II. The Babel fish is so useful that it is unlikely to have evolved by chance, and hence must be the work of God.
III. The Babel fish therefore, can be taken as proof of God’s existence.
I. Since God refuses to prove that He exists; proof of His existence constitutes a proof of His non-existence.
V. God does not exist.
(Adams, D. “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy).
The response consisted of the person critiquing each point in turn, and I will follow their lead:
“I – Gods creation is proof of his existence. He has advertised his existence. Faith means to know something and believe it.”
Creation is only proof of his existence if you already believe in him. If you don’t, it might not be so convincing, especially in light of the problems encountered by people during their existence. Creation can only be considered proof of God’s existence if it can be proven that He/She at least caused it, and if it can be shown that there was no other way that it could have come about. There are plenty of accounts that explain how the universe began that do not mention God.
As for faith, this is a tricky area. Knowing something and believing something are two different things. Millions of people around the world seem to ‘know’ things via faith in the way that is implied here, and they can’t all be right.
“II & III – Can’t argue with that”.
They certainly got that bit right.
“IV – See I.”
Sorry, still doesn’t work If God says that He will never prove His existence, and then does, three things are possible; He has at least gone back on his word, He isn’t as omnipotent as his advertising has led people to believe, or He doesn’t exist.
“V – Does so.”
Now we get down to the guts of the matter. In my experience, this is where most arguments with the faithful about the existence of God (or whatever) end up. Which is about what I expected.
In the end there is no clear winner. Believers will stand up and say that everything is ok because philosophers can’t prove that God does not exist. And they are right. But remember, in the same way that I can’t prove that God does not exist, they can’t prove that He (or She) does either. Keep that in mind next time someone tries to give you a pamphlet.
If you feel I’m mistaken in my reasoning, or just feel the need to argue, please go to the club website, http://uniofnewphilosophyclub.blogspot.com/ , and tell us what you think.
(References available on request)