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Does all the suffering and pain tell us anything about the nature of God?

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I went to a talk the other day and the guy set out the logical reason why, although there is evil and suffering in the world, God is actually good. Thing is, you can do the reverse...

'Here is Adam Deen's argument for the good of God switched into the argument for an evil God. Same logic.

Free will: Evil god gave us free will, so we sometimes choose to do good, even though evil god hates it. And free will also allows us to be morally responsible for evil acts, which evil god loves. He could have made us into puppets that only do evil, but then he would not have the pleasure of seeing us choose evil. To maximize evil, evil god designed us so that we can perform evil acts from our own will.

Character-destroying: Why does evil god create some beautiful things? For contrast. To make the ugly things look uglier. Why does evil god make some of us unusually healthy and wealthy? To make the suffering of the sick and poor even greater. Why does evil god let us have children that love us unconditionally? So that we will worry endlessly about them.

First order goods allow second order evils: Some evils require certain goods to exist. For example, jealousy could not exist without there being someone who has something good for your to be jealous about. Evil god had to give some of us good things so that the rest of us could feel jealousy.

Mystery: Evil god has a plan for how all the apparent goods in the world will ultimately lead to maximal evil, but evil god is so far beyond our reasoning ability that we cannot understand his plan.'


That above was set out by an athiest. Seems logical.
Is God good or evil? Does all the suffering and pain tell us anything about the nature of God?

by on Nov. 5, 2012 at 6:32 AM
Replies (21-21):
Clairwil
by Group Owner on Mar. 10, 2015 at 6:32 AM
More reverse theodicies

Let’s now return to standard theodicies and their mirror versions. Perhaps we have underestimated the range and efficacy of the standard theodicies on offer. Are there some that are not reversible? 
Certainly there are many we have not yet discussed. However, in many, if not all, cases, reverse theodicies quickly suggest themselves. To illustrate, I will sketch out three more examples: (i) a reverse laws of nature theodicy, (ii) a reverse after-life theodicy, and (iii) a reverse semantic theodicy.

Laws of nature theodicy. Effective purposeful action requires the world behave in a regular way (for example, I am able deliberately to light this fire by striking my match only because there are laws that determine that under such circumstances, fire will result). That there be laws of nature is a prerequisite of our having the ability both to act on our natural environment and interact with each other within it. These abilities allows for great goods. They give us the opportunity to act in a morally virtuous way, for example. However, such a law-governed world inevitably produces some evils. For instance, the kind of laws and initial conditions that produce stable land masses on which we can survive and evolve also produce tectonic shifts that result in earthquakes and tidal waves. Still, the evil of earthquakes and tidal waves is more than outweighed by the goods those laws allow. We might think we can envisage possible worlds that, as a result of being governed by different laws and/or initial conditions, contain a far greater ratio of good to evil (that contain stable land masses but no earthquakes, for example), but, due to consequences we have failed to foresee (perhaps the absence of earthquakes is at the cost of some even worse kind of global catastrophe), such worlds will, in reality, always be worse than the actual world.

A reverse theodicy can be constructed like so:

Laws of nature reverse theodicy. Effective and purposeful action requires that the world behave in a regular way. That there be laws of nature is a prerequisite of our having the ability to both act on our natural environment and interact with each other within it. These abilities allows for great evils. For example, they give us the opportunity to act in morally depraved ways – by killing and torturing each other. By giving us these abilities, evil god also allows us to experience certain important psychological forms of suffering such as frustration – we cannot try, and become frustrated through repeated failure, unless we are first given the opportunity to act. True, such a law-governed world inevitably produces some goods. For example, by giving us the ability to act within a physical environment, evil god gave us the ability to avoid that which causes us pain and seek out that which gives us pleasure. Still, such goods are more than outweighed by the evils these laws allow. We might think we can envisage possible worlds that, as a result of being governed by different laws and/or initial conditions, contain a far greater ratio of evil to good (that contain far more physical pain and far less pleasure, for example), but, due to consequences we have failed to foresee (perhaps the greater suffering will result in us being far more charitable, sympathetic and generally good towards others), such worlds will, in reality, always be better than the actual world.

To this, some may object : ‘Very well, an evil god will produce laws of nature so we can possess the power to do evil – but surely he will also sometimes suspend those laws in order to cause us confusion and frustration and to produce evils to which the laws of nature would otherwise prove an obstacle.’
Notice, however, that both theodicies face this type of objection. A similar concern can be raised about the standard laws of nature theodicy. Yes, a good god will produce a regular universe so that are able to do good, but surely he would be prepared to suspend those laws and intervene in order, say, to thwart some particularly morally despicable act (e.g. stopping Hitler’s rise to power) or to prevent some particularly terrible natural disaster, or to help us achieve some very great good (perhaps arranging for a stroke of good fortune in a science lab that then leads to a cure for cancer). A good god would not just stand back and allow thousands of children to be buried alive in an earthquake, even if the earthquake does happen to be the result of natural laws that are otherwise largely beneficial.
After-life theodicies are also popular. Take the following version presented by Tim Mawson in his Belief in God :

Compensatory after-life theodicy. The pain and suffering we experience in this world is more than compensated for in the after-life – where we will experience limitless good. The explanation for why a good god would not simply send us straight to heaven is that it is only within a law-governed world within which we have free will (something which, according to some theists, such as Mawson , we lack in heaven) that we can enjoy important goods, including the very great good of doing good of our volition. As a consequence of inhabiting this world for a short while, we suffer, but this suffering is more than compensated for by an eternity of communion with God in heaven.

Mawson’s after-life theodicy can also be mirrored like so:

Reverse compensatory after-life theodicy. The joy and happiness we experience in this world is more than compensated for in the after-life – where we experience limitless evil. The explanation for why a good god would not simply send us straight to this endlessly cruel world is that it is only within a law-governed world within which we have free will that we can experience important evils, including the very great evil of doing evil of our volition. As a consequence of inhabiting this world for a short while, we experience some goods, but this is more than compensated for by what follows: an eternity of suffering in the company of a supremely malignant being.

It is also possible to reverse the standard semantic responses to the problem of evil. Consider this example:

Semantic theodicy. When we describe God as being ‘good’, the term means something different to what it means when applied to mere humans. This difference in meaning at least partly explains why a good god would do things that we would not call ‘good’ if done by us.

We can reverse this theodicy like so:

Reverse semantic theodicy. When we describe god as being ‘evil’, the term means something different to what it means when applied to mere humans. This difference in meaning at least partly explains why an evil god should do things that we would not call ‘evil’ if done by us.

With a little ingenuity, reverse theodicies can be constructed for many other standard theodicies too. However, as I now explain, we should probably concede that - contrary to the claims made by Madden, Hare, Cahn and Stein - in some cases, no ‘exactly parallel’ theodicy can be constructed.

Asymmetries

Take for example, theodicies founded in a particular Christian story about the Fall and redemption. When we examine Augustine’s explanation of natural and moral evils – that both are rooted in the original sin of Adam and Eve – no parallel narrative suggests itself. An attempt to construct a reverse story about a reverse Adam and Eve, who, through disobedience to their evil creator, bring about a reverse ‘Fall’ runs into insuperable obstacles. For example, while a good god might have some reason to allow the natural evils brought about by original sin to continue (for these evil consequences, being brought on ourselves, are deserved, and there remains, in addition, God’s offer of redemption) why would an evil god allow the continued existence of the natural goods brought about by the disobedience of a reverse Adam and Eve? It may be that, with some ingenuity, a rather different sort of narrative involving an evil god might be constructed to account for natural goods, but it is hard to see how it could mirror the Christian story of the Fall in sufficient detail to qualify as a reverse theodicy. Pace Madden, Hare, Cahn and Stein, it seems that not every theodicy even has a parallel, let alone an exact one.
Even where a parallel theodicy can be constructed, there may still be asymmetries. For example, if we suppose free will is itself an intrinsic good, then the reverse free will theodicy involves an evil god imbuing us with the good of free will. While an evil god may still be able to maximize evil by giving us free will, he will nevertheless have to pay a price (introducing that intrinsic good) – a price for which there is no parallel in the standard free will theodicy. Arguably, this makes the standard free will theodicy much more effective than the reverse version. The theist may insist that because free will is not just an intrinsic good, but a very great good, so very great additional quantities of evil are required to outweigh it – so great, in fact, as to render the reverse free will theodicy significantly less plausible than the standard theodicy. 
So it appears that there are some asymmetries between the two sets of theodicies. However, the effect of these asymmetries appears to be comparatively minor, having little effect on the overall balance of reasonableness.
For example, given the mythic status of Adam, Eve, and the Fall, Augustine’s theodicy fails. But then the absence of a parallel theodicy does not affect the balance of reasonableness very much (and in any case, we might be able to construct a different sort of narrative to accompany the evil god hypothesis that accounts for natural goods in another way).
What of the asymmetry between the free will and reverse free will theodicies? Stein attempts to defend the thesis that for each theodicy there is an ‘exact parallel’ by arguing that free will is not, in fact, an intrinsic good.
However, suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that free will is an intrinsic good. That requires we abandon the Madden-Hare-Cahn-Stein thesis that for each theodicy there is a reverse theodicy that is its ‘exact parallel’. But does it require we abandon my symmetry thesis – the thesis that when we load the good god and evil god scales correctly with all the available evidence and other considerations pertinent to the reasonableness of a belief the two scales settle in roughly similar positions?
I don’t believe so, for at least three reasons:
First, this asymmetry between the two theodicies may very well neutralized by another. In order for us to have a full range of free choices between good and evil, god, whether good or evil, must introduce pain, suffering and death not just as possibilities but as realities. Not only must he make us vulnerable to pain, suffering and death (to give us the option of torturing or murdering others), he must actually inflict pain and death so that we have the free choice to help alleviate or prevent it. Now if it is prima facie plausible that free will is an intrinsic good, it is no less plausible that pain, suffering and death are intrinsic evils. In which case both free will theodicies requires the introduction of intrinsic goods and intrinsic evils. While the intrinsic goods give the evil god hypothesis some additional explaining to do, the intrinsic evils give the good god hypothesis some additional explaining to do. In which case, it appears the two asymmetries balance out.
Second, even if it were true that the free will theodicy is significantly more effective then the reverse theodicy, that might not greatly effect balance of reasonableness between the good and evil god hypotheses. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the standard free will theodicy is entirely effective in accounting for moral evils, and that the reverse theodicy wholly ineffective in accounting for moral goods (this being a far more dramatic asymmetry than even the one proposed). Thus we leave the full weight of moral good on the evil god scale, but entirely remove the weight of moral evil from the good God scale. Does this change in the balance of the two scales result in the two pointers indicating very different levels of reasonableness? Arguably not. For, ceteris paribus, there still remains an enormous amount of evil on the good god scale (such as the extraordinary quantities of suffering unleashed on sentient creatures over hundreds of millions of years before moral agents even made an appearance on the Earth). It may be argued (I think with some plausibility) that when those evils explained by the free will theodicy are removed, there remains more than enough weight of evil to keep the needle pointed firmly at ‘highly unreasonable’. The needle does not now point at ‘not unreasonable’ or ‘quite reasonable’ – it remains stuck down the ‘highly unreasonable’ end of the scale. The scale has shifted a little, perhaps, but not by very much. If that is so (and do I think it at least arguable), then the symmetry thesis remains true.
Third, let’s remember that even if the standard free will theodicy is rather more effective than the reverse theodicy, this asymmetry might in any case be counterbalanced or outweighed by other asymmetries favouring the evil god hypothesis over the good god hypothesis. In fact, we have already discovered one example: prima facie, the evidence concerning miracles and religious experience appears to support the evil god hypothesis rather more than it does the good god hypothesis.
To conclude, then, it seems that - pace Madden, Hare, Cahn and Stein - the two sets of theodicies do not precisely parallel each other. There are asymmetries. However, we have found little reason to suppose these asymmetries have much effect on the overall level of reasonableness of our respective god hypotheses. We have not yet found good reason to suppose that our two sets of scales do not, as the symmetry thesis states, settle in roughly similar positions.

Other moves

To finish, I now anticipate five responses the evil God challenge may provoke, and briefly sketch out some of the difficulties they face.

1. Significantly more good than evil
We might try to meet the challenge by showing that there is significantly more good than evil in the world. This will be hard to establish however, not least because good and evil are difficult to quantify and measure. Some theists consider it just obvious that the world contains more good than evil, but then many (including some theists) are struck by the exact opposite thought. Appeals to subjective estimations can carry little weight.

2. Ontological arguments
Might ontological arguments provide a priori grounds for supposing that not only is there a god, he is good? The most obvious difficulty here is that it is debatable, to say, the least, whether any cogent ontological argument can be constructed. The cogency of those arguments that have been offered remains unrecognized not just by non-theists, but also by many theists – perhaps the majority of philosopher-theists. They, certainly, will not be reaching for the ontological argument in order to demonstrate why the symmetry thesis fails.
New notes that some ontological arguments are, in any case, reversible. Take this example (my own – based on New and Anselm):

I can conceive of an evil god - a being whom no worse can be conceived.
But it is worse for such being to exist in reality than in the imagination. Therefore, the being of which I conceive must exist in reality.

3. Impossibility arguments
Could we meet the evil God challenge by showing that an evil God is actually an impossibility, for the very notion of an evil god contains a contradiction? Here are two examples of such an argument:

(i) Daniel’s platonic refutation’ of the evil God hypothesis
In ‘God, Demon, Good, Evil’ , Daniels suggests the resources to deal with the evil god challenge can be found in Plato’s Gorgias. Daniels believes Plato has shown that an evil god is an impossibility. His ‘platonic refutation’ of the evil god hypothesis is as follows.
First, Daniels claims we always do what we judge to be good. Even when I smoke, despite judging smoking to be bad, I do it because I judge that it would be good to smoke this cigarette here and now.
It follows, says Daniels, that no one does bad knowingly. But then it follows that if a being is omniscient, he will not do bad. There cannot exist an omniscient yet evil being. The notion of an omniscient yet evil being involves a contradiction.
I believe Daniels’ argument trades on an ambiguity in his use of the word ‘good’. True, whenever I do something deliberately, I judge, in a sense, that what I do is ‘good’. But ‘good’ here need mean no more than, ‘that which I aim to achieve’. We have not yet been given any reason to suppose I cannot judge to be ‘good’, in this sense, what I also deem to be evil, because I desire evil. Yes, an evil god will judge doing evil to be ‘good’, but only in the trivial sense that evil is what he desires. Pace Daniels, there is no contradiction involved in an omniscient being judging evil to be, in this sense, ‘good’.

(ii) The desire argument
A rather different argument would be: ‘But by bringing about evil, your evil god thereby aims to satisfy his own desire for evil; and the satisfaction of a desire is an intrinsic good. Thus the idea of a maximally evil god aiming to produce an intrinsic good involves a contradiction.’
This argument also fails. Even if we grant the dubious assumption that the satisfying of any desire – even an evil one – is an intrinsic good, the most we have revealed, here, is another local asymmetry – that, in aiming to maximize evil, evil god would have also to aim to achieve at least one intrinsic good (namely, the satisfaction of his desire to maximize evil). What we have established, perhaps, is that there are certain logical limits on God’s evilness (just as there are also logical limits on his power: he can’t make a stone so heavy it cannot be lifted). Evil god can still be maximally evil – as evil as it is logically possible to be. We have not yet established a contradiction in the notion of a maximally evil being.
There is, in any case, a more general point to be made about arguments attempting to show that an evil god is an impossibility and that the evil god challenge is thus met. The point is this: even supposing an evil god is, for some reason X, an impossibility, we can still ask the hypothetical question: setting aside the fact that so-and-so establishes that an evil god is an impossibility, how reasonable would it otherwise be to suppose such an evil being exists? If the answer is ‘highly unreasonable’, i.e. because of the problem of good, then the evil god challenge can still be run. We can still ask the theist to explain why, if they would otherwise reject the evil god hypothesis is highly unreasonable, do they not take the same view regarding the good god hypothesis?

4. Arguments from simplicity
What if the good god hypothesis is significantly simpler than the evil god hypothesis?
For example, we might suggest that a good god can be defined in a simple way, e.g. as possessing every positive attribute. As goodness is a positive attribute, it follows this god is good. The concept of an evil god, by contrast, is more complex, for he possesses both positive attributes (omniscience and omnipotence) and negative attributes (evil). Principles of parsimony require, then, that we favour the good god over the evil god hypothesis.
I acknowledge that there may indeed be asymmetries between the good and evil god hypotheses in terms of simplicity and economy. However, note that the fact that one theory is much more economical than another lends it little additional credibility if what evidence (and other considerations pertaining to reasonableness) there is overwhelming favours the view that both theories are false.
Take, for example, these two hypotheses: (i) Swindon is populated with one thousand elves, and (ii) Swindon is populated with one thousand elves, each of which has a fairy sitting on its head. The first hypothesis is more economical, as it posits half as many entities as the first. But is the first hypothesis significantly more reasonable than the second? No. For not only is there little reason to suppose either hypothesis is true, there is overwhelming evidence both are false.
Similarly, if the reasonableness of both the good and the evil god hypotheses is very low, pointing out that one hypothesis is rather more economical than the other does little to raise the probability of one hypothesis with respect to the other. The suggestion that the two hypotheses are more or less equally unreasonable remains unthreatened.

Conclusion

The focus of this paper has been on the evil god challenge: the challenge of explaining why the good god hypothesis should be considered significantly more reasonable than the evil god hypothesis. We have examined several of the most popular arguments for the existence of a good god and found they appear to provide little if any more support for the good god hypothesis than they do the evil god hypothesis. We have also seen that many of the theodicies offered by theists to deal with the problem of evil are mirrored by reverse theodicies that can then be applied to the problem of good. Prima facie, our two sets of scales seem to balance out in much the same way. 
Now I do not claim that the symmetry thesis is true, and that the evil god challenge cannot be met. But it seems to me that it is a challenge that deserves to be taken seriously. The problem facing defenders of classical monotheism is this: until they can provide good grounds for supposing the symmetry thesis is false, they lack good grounds for supposing the evil god hypothesis is any more reasonable than the evil god hypothesis – the latter hypothesis being something that, surely, even they will admit is very unreasonable indeed.
While I acknowledge the possibility that the evil god challenge might yet be met, I cannot myself see how. Perhaps there are grounds for supposing the universe was created by an intelligent being. But, at this point in time, the suggestion that this being is omnipotent, omniscient and maximally good seems to me hardly more reasonable than the suggestion that he is omnipotent, omniscient and maximally evil.
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