Friday, April 26, 2013

Does Evil & Suffering Disprove God? A Debate Review Between Walter Sincott-Armstrong v. William Lane Craig

Professor of philosophy Walter Sincott-Armstrong debated William Lane Craig once upon a time long ago on the topic of whether the existence of evil and suffering disprove that god exists. In the debate, Armstrong makes some pretty compelling arguments that there cannot be a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving to the maximal degree. He says god could be mostly powerful or mostly loving for example, but not all of all of those three attributes. He opens his argument with a personal anecdote of a friend who had lost their child and whose death split the family apart. What justification does god have, Armstrong asks, for allowing such evil?

Part 1: Summarizing the debate

In the debate Armstrong makes a deductive argument using the existence of gratuitous evil as the source of evidence against the compatibility of god’s most commonly agreed upon attributes mentioned above. Armstrong’s argument is as follows:

1. If there were an all-powerful and all-good god, there would not be any evil in the world unless that evil is logically necessary for some adequately compensating good.

2. There is some evil in the world and some of that evil is not logically necessary for any adequately compensating good.

3. Therefore, there can’t be a god that is all powerful and all good.

Armstrong defines evil as “anything that all rational people avoid for themselves unless they have some adequate reason to want that evil.” This would include things like pain, ignorance, disability, death. He says “evil is justified when there are no other ways or better ways to avoid it.” For example, going to the dentist might cause immense pain and suffering, but it’s for the long term benefit of your teeth and health. The only evil god is justified in allowing he says, are those that are logically necessary in order to promote some compensating good.

After making his opening argument against god’s existence using evil, Armstrong then preempts some of the most common objections.

Possible responses:

1. Evil is imposed by god as a punishment for sin. But evil is not distributed evenly according to sin. Original sin is unfair. We view group punishment as barbaric and unjust.

2. The child who suffers in this life is repaid in heaven. Isn't it better to have a fulfilling life while also going to heaven? God could send the child straight to heaven instead of having it suffer.

3. Free will is so valuable that god let us have even though he knew we’d misuse it. But this doesn’t address natural evil, disease, earthquakes, etc. Free will cannot provide god with a reason for allowing natural evil.

4. Evil builds character. Observers and sufferers of evil might become more compassionate. But god can make people compassionate in many other ways than to force someone around them to suffer and die. It’s unfair to make someone suffer so that somebody else can learn something.

5. Evil is used by god to maximize the number of people to know god and glorify god. If god allows babies to suffer for other people to glorify god, it seems very narcissistic. God can bring people to him voluntarily in other ways that don’t involve evil.

6. God has a reason for permitting evil, we just can’t see it. Imagine your neighbor lets his kids starve. He has plenty of food but doesn’t feed his children. We’d think he’s a bad parent. But imagine if someone says “maybe he has sufficient reason to starve the kids, maybe he has some better purpose later on.” Because we cannot know this reason we are justified in concluding that the parent is bad based on what we know.

7. Evil gives us some reason not to believe in god but theists insist that this evidence is overridden by other evidence for god. Even if the other arguments for god are good, it’s hard to show how that kind of creator is all-good and not just very good or mostly good.

In conclusion Armstrong says, it seems that theists have a choice: they can say that god is all powerful, but not all loving. What they can’t do is face the evidence of evil in this world and still believe in the traditional god.

Before I weigh in, let me summarize from the debate the main points that Craig argues in favor of god’s existence.

Craig's Arguments:

Craig opens his arguments by saying that the problem of evil does not count as a disproof of the existence of god intellectually. He offers the following summary of Armstrong’s syllogism as he sees it:

1. If god exists, gratuitous evil does not exist. (Evil that is morally unjustified)

2. Gratuitous evil exists

3. Therefore, god does not exist.

Craig argues that gratuitous evil does not exist because we cannot know that it does. He then says that the atheist assumes that if god allows these evils to exist, then it must be evident to us, which he says is ungrounded.  We shouldn’t expect to see the reasons why god permits evil, he argues. Evil that exists today “could” according to Craig, might not be understood why god allowed it until centuries later. Our limitations in time prevent us from knowing this, but that is not the case for god who’s timeless.

Craig then argues that certain Christian doctrines mention that we’d expect to see evil in the world that appears gratuitous, making it harder for Armstrong’s case. He says Armstrong cannot infer the appearance of evil to the fact of evil. Craig then offers three arguments to make this case:

1.  The purpose of life is not human happiness, it is to know god. We naturally assume that if god exists, the purpose of this life is to be happy, and that god should make all of our lives happy. It may well be the case that only in a world involving natural and moral evils that the maximum number of persons would freely come to know god and his salvation. Armstrong has to show that it is feasible to create a world which has the same amount of the knowledge of god and of his salvation, but that has less evil.

2. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against god and his purpose. He’s spiritual alienated. Christians should expect to see terrible evils in the world. God has given mankind over to the evil that he’s chosen. God lets it run its course.

3. God’s purpose spills over into eternal life. In the afterlife god will reward those who’ve suffered and who’ve trusted in god. We shouldn't expect to see the reasons in this life for why permits evil. The glory of eternal heaven outweighs any suffering in the world. Given the prospects of eternal life, some suffering may be justified only in light of eternity.

Craig then goes on to say that Armstrong would then have to refute these three doctrines which he hasn’t done in order to show that natural evils are indeed gratuitous. Then in another tactic Craig is so fond of, he tries to turn the tables and argue that if god exists, then the evil in the world is not gratuitous. So he then puts forth a modified version of his summary above of Armstrong’s argument above:
1. If god exists, gratuitous evil does not exist.

2*. God exists

3*. Therefore, gratuitous evil does not exist.

Then Craig goes onto argue for god using the cosmological, the fine tuning, and the moral arguments which I've written about before so I won’t summarize here.

Interestingly, there is no back and forth rebuttal in this debate and they just go right into a dialogue after their opening speeches.

Part 2: My Analysis of the Debate

I want to summarize for myself the arguments made in the debate and of course I will be especially critical of Craig.

I've just recently written of the inadequacy of speculating whether god has morally sufficient reasons for doing what he does so this will allow me to critique someone who thinks he actually knows.

Let me now argue against Craig’s 3 points that he justified human suffering with.

1. The purpose of life is not human happiness, it is to know god.

Is that so? Well, of course that’s Craig’s opinion, and is not verifiable. One must have faith in Christian doctrine in order to accept such a proposition. But if we take it at face value, why is it true that millions of people who have been born and who are alive today have suffered from such levels of mental retardation that they are incapable of the cognitive functioning necessary to know anything truthful of the outside world, let alone that god exists? You cannot know god unless you’ve got a reasonably functioning brain. If the purpose of life is to know god, it would seem at odds with his plan that he’d build into the design the very impediments that prevent one from actualizing the whole purpose of the plan. In light of this fact, the purpose of all our lives we’re being told by Craig is fundamentally flawed.

This point was also addressed by Armstrong in his point number 5. God certainly could bring people to him using other means besides natural evils like suffering and disease. In his infinite wisdom, he surely could bring about the same number of people, perhaps even more, to know him than if he allowed natural evils and could still achieve the same overall goal. For one thing, god could simply give us more evidence that he exists. That would convince billions to freely worship him and jettison their pagan gods. And why couldn't god have chosen to bring about the maximal number of people freely to him in a world without natural evil, but that still contains human evil? To say god could create any possible world he wants, and chose to create one with human and natural evils is to say god willingly chose to create the world with more suffering in it. The debate never addressed the origin of natural evil, whether it was through original sin or not, but such investigations lead to numerous other problems for theism in light of modern science.

And what about current and future advances in medical technology? If we can cure the diseases and remove the pain and suffering that god inflicts on us or allows us to experience, are we thwarting god’s plan? What if we alleviate suffering on a massive scale? Would the alleviation of suffering then not produce the kinds of positive outcomes god is hoping for down the road?

What does naturalism have to say about natural evils like disease and earthquakes? Well, we live in a volatile and imperfect world; you’d expect to see natural disasters harm people and animals.  Diseases are just other forms of life trying to survive in the same way we are – they just have to harm other beings in order for them to flourish, much like how we kill millions of animals for food in order for us to flourish. Under naturalism there’s no mystery why there exists natural evils and suffering in light of the knowledge we have of what causes them.

2. Mankind is in a state of rebellion against god and his purpose.

From god’s perspective, was there ever any expectation that mankind wouldn’t rebel? Assuming the Christian story to be true, god creates mankind and gives him and all his descendants thereof freewill and the desire to be free and to want to live autonomously. Then god imposes a set of very strict and impossible to follow set of rules and morals, and commands that his creation love him and submit to him and essentially be his slaves. Then god gets angry when he sees his creation rebelling against him. Really? What did god expect to happen? If you enslaved a nation of people and ordered them to worship you, of course you’d expect them to rebel against you.

I think that the Christian doctrine of man’s rebellion and the wrath he suffers from is better explained by the masochistic aspects of the human personality. It is just far too easy to believe that we rebelled against god, and that that’s why we live in a world with diseases and earthquakes. This also ignores the fact that suffering and disease predated the evolution of mankind by millions of years and therefore cannot be due to man’s rebellion against god. I think this debate occurred before Craig came to accept evolution as fact, which happened rather recently. In light of evolution and the fact that there was no literal Adam and Eve, this argument based on the fall of Adam in the Garden of Eden falls flat under its erroneous assumptions.

3. God’s purpose spills over into eternal life.

The promise of eternal life is really all the Christian has to justify natural suffering in this world. The problem is that this does not address the existence of animal suffering at all. Why should an animal suffer a horrendous ordeal only to die and be forfeited the same possible rewards human suffering is worthy of under the Christian worldview? A YouTube user going by the name of “skydivephil” recently made a video critiquing the many fallacious attempts by theists like William Lane Craig in order to try to argue that animals are not consciously aware of the pain they suffer and that animal suffering could not be used as an argument against god.

Craig invites to his own website’s weekly Q&A Prof. Michael Murray whose book Nature Red in Tooth and Claw is what Craig bases his justification on that animals are not consciously aware of pain. “Those parts of the brain most closely associated with consciousness of pain,” Murray writes, “are also the parts that were the last to arrive among mammals: the pre-frontal cortex.” As such, he concludes that there exists 3 levels of pain awareness:

Level 3: a second order awareness that one is oneself experiencing (2).
Level 2: a first order, subjective experience of pain.
Level 1: information-bearing neural states produced by noxious stimuli resulting in aversive behavior.

But it is simply not true that only advanced mammals have a prefrontal cortex. In fact, animals as wide ranging as opossums, guinea pigs, and rats all contain a prefrontal cortex or a neo-cortex. And this is attested by the majority of the scientific community. So it is simply not the case that non-primate lower mammals are not aware of their pain and suffering as apologists like Craig make it out to be.

Furthermore, from PZ Myers’ website on this outright lie of Craig, he mentions the implications of arguing that the prefrontal cortex is necessary for level 3 conscious awareness. “Craig has actually just rejected Cartesian dualism (and neo-Cartesian views of the ‘soul’) in that claim. If you assert that the neurological processes that are involved in self-representation are necessary for the existence of self-representation, then you are rejecting the possibility that something can self-represent without those processes. That’s the basic mode.

With this evidence in place, Craig fails ultimately to rebut Armstrong's second premise of his argument which is what he intended to do. The problem with Craig is that he knows how to deliver his arguments such that you sometimes need to play back the tape in order to break his false claims apart minute by minute, and point by point in order see determine their untruth. 


In Craig’s closing arguments he reads an emotional letter from a person who wrote him who was grieving over the recent loss of a child. No doubt this was a last ditch appeal to the audience’s emotions to try to win them over. In the letter he reads of a man who finds hope that he’ll one day be reunited with his deceased daughter in heaven. Now there’s no doubt that religion offers hope and consolation to those going through difficult times, but it’s also true that a false religion that wasn't true would have the same exact effect on people who believed in it. A false religion that offered hope would be just as effective as one that was real, so long as it was believed to be true. So the fact that religion provides some people a way to cope and face death with a bit more courage, says absolutely nothing about whether that religion is true. In fact, I’d argue that the consoling powers of faith are in part the reason why religions were created by our fearful ancestors in the first place – as a wishful thinking measure to sooth the inevitable pain of death.

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