Almost every theist I've encountered and almost every theist I've heard defending their faith recognizes the problem of suffering as a real problem for theism. That is to say, they recognize that an omnibenevolent deity is incompatible with the existence of gratuitous suffering. That's why so many theists spend so much time trying to argue that gratuitous suffering doesn't really exist, but only seems apparent. The theist will find themselves is an arduous position if they try and defend this in light of evolution. That is because the evolutionary process requires suffering and death in order to work, and any god who would contingently chose to use evolution as the means to create one particular species when it could have done so by other less tormenting means needs to have a very good reason why - especially since it is argued that god cannot perform immoral or evil acts and can only choose morally good actions.
One theist who doesn't think there is a good reason to think gratuitous suffering and omnibenevolence are incompatible is Randy Everist. Recently we got into a bout on this very issue and he has made his case why he thinks they are compatible. My last post was a critic of our debate over on his blog, and he wrote a post further articulating his views. So here I'm going to critique his defense that there is no good reason to think that an omnibenevolent deity and gratuitous suffering are incompatible.
The first thing I noticed in his response to me as well as in our debate, is that he never defends or even claims the position that gratuitous suffering doesn't exist. Maybe he does, but he hasn't made this known in our dialogue. From the start, he tries to break down the logic of my argument so I will critique his claims line by line.
First he states the two propositions that are part of my argument, but not exactly in the way I would phrase them. Nonetheless, I will use his interpretation of my argument verbatim.
1. There is an omnibenevolent God.
2. There is gratuitous suffering.
He states that it's not clear why they are contradictory, even though it seems that the vast majority of his fellow theists recognize a problem. He further claims that I made no argument defending their incompatibility. I made an argument, and I posted that argument in my last post, but Randy's predicted response is always, "But why think this?" followed by a bad explanation. He tries to restate my argument saying:
3. If (1) and (2) are compatible, then it is indistinguishable from evil.*
Then he makes a fuss claiming that I wasn't clear as to what "it" means, saying it "has never been very clear". But I beg to differ. It's very obvious from what I wrote that I meant omnibenevolence. I wrote, "If omnibenevolence is compatible with the intentional creation of suffering that serves no purpose, well then how can we distinguish it from evil?" It's very obvious what "it" meant, but apparently it confused Randy and so he tries guessing "it" meant gratuitous suffering. Really? Would it really make any sense if I asked, "If omnibenevolence is compatible with the intentional creation of suffering that serves no purpose, well then how can we distinguish gratuitous suffering from evil?" Gratuitous suffering and evil are fully compatible; it needs no explanation. In fact, many people define evil as the infliction of gratuitous suffering.
So what Randy eventually does is he assumes I meant omnibenevolence and moves on. He then formulates what he thinks my argument is:
4. There is an omnibenevolent God.
5. There is gratuitous suffering.
6. If (4) and (5) are compatible, then it is indistinguishable from evil.
The "it" here would be the omnibenevolence the god of classical theism must have. His response is:
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.
It's very clear to me that if omnibenevolence is indistinguishable from evil, then omnibenevolence ceases to have any meaning. Omnibenevolence is defined to mean, "unlimited or infinite benevolence". How then can evil be admitted into omnibenevolence? The two are opposites, and any omnibenevolent being who was capable of evil would have a limitation on their benevolence, and hence couldn't be omnibenevolent. So one cannot be compatible with the other, and any being said to have one of these traits cannot also have the other. That is to say, that a being cannot be both omnibenevolent and be evil or capable of evil. This seems to me so elementary that it should not require further justification. For Randy not to recognize this basic logical fact, he undermines his integrity.
For him to also characterize my argument as tantamount to saying “X is inscrutable; therefore, X is incoherent” as he did, is wrong. I'm not at all claiming that it's impossible to understand whether or not omnibenevolence and evil are compatible. I'm claiming that it is extremely easy to discern that they aren't. Therefore, this is not an epistemic problem at all, even though Randy is trying to make it out to be, or he's trying to accuse me of trying to make it out to be. I'm not.
Taking Randy's misinterpretation of my argument at face value, I also commented that such a defense of the problem of suffering could also be used against the metaphysical belief that something cannot come from nothing (which seems to be the theist's go-to argument nowadays). And it really could apply to almost any logical problem. The point I was making is that this a bad characterization as it could also be used both ways. It doesn't even apply to the problem the theist faces, as I've argued above. I would never argue, as Randy correctly puts it, that “Something coming from nothing is inscrutable; therefore, something coming from nothing is incoherent.” (Many theists actually reason that way with the Kalam) Rather, I was trying to say that the theists who make the metaphysical claim that something cannot come from nothing, claim to know this belief is true because they think they can understand the science and metaphysics behind it - not because they think it's inscrutable. I'm saying that I can argue that omnibenevolence and gratuitous suffering are incompatible because I can understand the logic behind it, as have most other theists and non-theists. Randy thinks premise 6 is inscrutable, (or he thinks I think it is) but he is largely alone in this belief. And so in his characterization of my argument his fatally misunderstands it.
So then he goes on to accuse me of getting my characterization of his argument as being in tune with the current popular apologetic trend of skeptical theism backwards. He says, "it is he who has claimed the skeptical knowledge (vis-à-vis the “indistinguishable” claim in ), and so his response here appears bizarre." Randy makes no sense here and it is obvious he is desperate to try to find a contradiction that I've made. I haven't made the skeptical theistic claim at all. In premise 6 above I claim to know with a high degree of certainty that 4 and 5 are incompatible because if they weren't then an omnibenevolent being would be capable of being evil, something which virtually no theist defends (except Randy). Even the hardcore Calvinists at least deny that god is omnibenevolent, but Randy wants to have his cake and eat it too.
Then he makes premise 7:
Correct. Omnibenevolence and evil are distinguishable because evil is compatible with gratuitous suffering, whereas omnibenevolence is not. Which brings him to his the conclusion:
I agree that 4 and 5 are not compatible. But Randy thinks that premise 7 has "attendant" problems which he summarizes as:
[I]f 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 fail once again to see how his explanation makes any sense in light of the severe logical problem Randy faces. He seems to be making Planting's argument that demons can corrupt nature and introduce things that might look like evil, which would be an argument compatible with skeptical theism!! (Which Randy supposedly denies). If god were to provide comfort to a person, the act itself can be assessed and easily be distinguished from evil, regardless of whether a demon could have been tricking us. But more importantly, we need to know why that person is in discomfort. If it's caused by the natural laws that god designed, then god is fully culpable and therefore evil. Please see this nice argument here demonstrating this.
I think premise 6 has a lot going for it, for the reasons I showed above. To say that premises 4 and 5 do not demonstrate a logical contradiction together is to not understand the basics and meaning of logic, nor is it to understand the definitions of these terms. This is something agreed upon by almost every theist and atheist, philosopher and non-philosopher alike. But if you were to agree with Randy's argument, you would have to agree with the following: God is omnibenevolent, has infinite goodness and is incapable of evil, yet it is perfectly logical that god creates situations where sentient beings suffer for no morally justifiable purpose without any conflict with his perfect moral goodness and omnibenevolence. That's what you have to believe is true in order to agree with Randy.
In the end, Randy must either ignorantly or deliberately mischaracterize my arguments in order to claim that they're incoherent, all the while defending the untenable. An honest interpretation of my arguments will not leave one so lucky.
* In Randy's post, he uses different numbers than I am using here but the content is the same.