Where I Cram My Ideas

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Glenn Miller addresses ultimate motives

A series of links led me to an (dated) article that JP Holding challenged Sam Harris to respond to. Being the relative newcomer to these online joustings that I am, I have no idea whether or not Harris took it upon himself to get back to him (and I don't know enough about Holding to know whether or not he's a worthy adversary). Well, the article deals with a Christian justification of the problem of evil, and I think I'll do my best to respond. The article is by Glenn Miller.

1. Here is how the original question was posed. Miller responded to a reader's subsequent question "Isn't that cruel?":

"At the outset God made this into a life-and-death situation. God staked the entire future of mankind on this one event. We lost. The moment that Adam and Eve ate that fruit, wheels were set in motion that would ultimately result in the doom of mankind. Without some kind of intervention from God we would all be damned. God does promise to intervene, but it's like building a nuclear bomb and setting it to go off in a large city at 12:00. Then, when all of the people of the city come to you for mercy, you disarm it for them. Does that make you a hero for disarming it or a lunatic for building it in the first place? The whole thing was orchestrated to make us feel dependent upon God. That says a lot about God's character."

2. The impossibility of coming up with a decisive answer

Miller correctly notes that "If we are not able to discover a motive for God's decision to [create the universe], then we will not be justified in judging that unknown motive to be either adequately good or to be insufficient."

As an aside, this is a complicating issue that simultaneously makes the 'God' hypothesis an absolutely impossible one to disprove, and renders the hypothesis irrelevant for scientific study as well. Imagine this sort of conversation:

Jack: If the earth is just a few thousand years old, then why does it appear ancient?
Jill: God did it - but we can't know why; His motives are sometimes a mystery.
Jack: But isn't that deceitful?
Jill: Who are we to judge what 'deceitful' is? God's motives are sometimes a mystery, so somehow it's not deceitful.

Hopefully it's quite clear why the problem of evil is so difficult to impress upon the practiced believer. It's of more ease (and perhaps importance) to consider the more readily defined ideas of justice or love... but I'll save that for later.

3. What's the question?

The person who penned the original question meant to argue that the idea of the Christian God does not = the idea of a good god. Since 'Christian God' must, by definition, = 'Good God,' we can see what his argument was: The idea of the Christian God is not good. He was NOT claiming 'God exists' and then saying '...but He is evil!' as Miller interprets the situation. More on this later.

Of course, the original article (which I was unable to find) seems to have made a point of questioning why God placed the magical trees in the garden, why the magical serpent tested Adam & Eve when they had no knowledge of right and wrong, etc, but I won't write about that just yet either.

4. Understanding 'good' and 'evil' in the problem of evil

Language is arbitrary. For those who haven't considered this directly, it should make abundant sense that the word 'cat' only means 'cat' among people who agree on that meaning. So, when we're talking about the problem of evil, we can't make any sense unless we agree on the meaning of 'evil.' Otherwise, you could be talking about 'morally wrong or bad; immoral; wicked,' as dictionary.com suggests, while I'm talking about 'a loaf of bread' (unlikely... but you see the point).

Miller addresses that problem early on:
"We must note that, in the first question, we (somewhat insignificant 'carbon-based life forms') are presuming to judge God's morality and character on the basis of our own! For a human being, with the incredible paucity of data we have about the universe, morality, reality, and complexity, to decide that God is less kind, less noble, less compassionate, less moral, less 'humane' than they, seems quite bizarre, in my opinion."

On whose basis, then, are we to judge? Miller should recognize a few things:

First, if we can't criticize God, then we can't know if God is good. Here's how such an attempt would go:

Hansel: God is great, God is good! Let's bring Jesus to the neighborhood!
Gretel: How do you know God only does good things?
Hansel: Because God is good!
Gretel: What is 'good?'
Hansel: Whatever God does, because God only does good!
Gretel: All you're telling me is that God does what God does.

With that sort of approach, the word 'good' is pointless - rather than saying 'God is good,' you may as well say 'God is God' for all the information the statement conveys. It is a tautology. Clearly, we need to have some idea of what 'good' means if we are to make sense of the statement 'God is good.'

Fortunately, the Bible provides some clarity. Traditional Christianity describes God not only as omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent, but a) Loving, b) Just, c) Self-sacrificing, etc. Miller adds "good, merciful, kind, benevolent, and interested in the welfare of all His creatures, great and small." These traits are more easily understood than 'good,' and so easier to test.

Second, he is begging the question. The question is whether or not a good God exists, and in the above passage, Miller assumes that one does. Now remember, since we're talking about the idea of the Christian God, we're assuming a being that is omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent.

If our analysis (which, to be meaningful, must proceed from an agreed definition of 'good,' other than 'that which God would do') does not produce a god that is all-good, then we do not have a god that matches the description of the Christian God, and the argument is over.

For Miller to say that we are 'presuming' to judge God's character is to already assume that the idea of God we're questioning exists. The skeptic quoted at the beginning of this post was NOT arguing that a god exists that created morally superior beings than itself. He is arguing that the theology/philosophy behind the idea of God is not compatible with what we can describe as a good God.

Let me state that again: The theology/philosophy behind the idea of God is not compatible with what we can describe as a good God. Remember that we have to understand 'good' and 'evil' outside of 'what God would or would not do' in order to meaningfully describe God as 'good.'

If 'good' is just 'what God would or would not do,' then the skeptic quoted at the beginning of this post was simply arguing 'How could God do that which God could not do?' A Christian can simply respond by saying 'Well, that's impossible... so our understanding of what God could do must be lacking.' However, such a response derives from a misunderstanding of the point of the argument - rather than assuming [A good God exists] -> Let's figure out how to make His actions all be good, the problem of evil assumes nothing, and then -> Let's figure out if a good god exists.

5. Desire Utilitarianism Lite

Desire utilitarianism is a theory that assumes the absence of the supernatural or of any overarching established moral code, which makes it difficult to analyze God... but if we were to take the 'idea' of God and apply desire utilitarianism, it may yield some insights.

Desires are the objects of moral criticism ('good' and 'evil')
Good desires are those that tend to fulfill the desires of others (promoting welfare generally)
Good actions are those which a person with good desires would act upon
Good and evil desires are discovered by a scientific sort of evaluation as to which desires would objectively tend to fulfill those of others - a list of such desires would include empathy, compassion; it would exclude the desire to harm others, to hate; to kill.

6. Determinism - more misunderstanding

Miller spends a good deal of time berating 'the skeptic' for being too deterministic. However, the skeptic was not assuming that everything would be a 'first domino fell over, hitting the next one, and the next one' kind of circumstance. Since he assumed 'omniscience' in the idea of the Christian God he was arguing against, he was merely noting that such a God would know beforehand the events which would transpire on earth. This is not predeterminism, and I believe Miller wasted his words here. The skeptic simply assumed that God didn't bring the universe into existence under the naive belief that everything would work out perfectly. For many theological reasons I could outline, but decline to do so for space-saving purposes, this is a valid assumption to make.

So far...

Miller's response is too long to draw a very thorough breakdown from me. He spent most of the rest of the letter trying to explain why various examples people pose as cruelties imposed by the Almighty are not as bad as one might think. So far, it's done nothing to answer the basic question - nothing at all. Miller has assumed the Bible to be true; then assumed God to be morally good; then taken the appropriate measures to interpret the Bible thus... in so doing, he happened to mention (by way of contrasting the plague on Egypt) various other plagues of the ancient world that accounted for hundreds of thousands of horrible deaths all over the Middle East. All of this, presumably, was foreseen by God. Why go ahead with the plan, then?

7. Postulating a motive

Very simply, if God was ever once the only entity in existence, and God is all-good, clearly it is possible for good to exist without evil. If God is all-powerful, then God does not need love, companionship, help etc. In fact, if God did need love, He could always rely on those other aspects of His tri-unity (Hey Jesus, wanna shoot some pool?).

A) A universe can exist without suffering or evil
B) An all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God can exist alone
C) Therefore, the existence of suffering and evil is not necessary. It was derived from a conscious decision which was not made for the benefit of those created - since those creations would wind up "enduring a life of hardship and pervasive suffering [whereupon] most humans will end up in Hell, where they will be actively tortured forever and ever."

It's a common response for a Christian to postulate that there is some overarching good to explain the evil. I challenge them to postulate ANY single reason God would have for creating the universe.

8. Greater good

There could be some 'greater good' that demands the creation of this universe. For example, there could be another universe in which two people get to go to Heaven for every person in this universe that burns in Hell. This assumes that there is a price/exchange rate for every soul - in fact, what if the majority of humans who go to Hell simply go there so a few can get to Heaven? Maybe we're sacrificed because we're only worth, collectively, as much as the Christians who go to Heaven.

The latter proposition falls apart. First it assumes that some humans are more valuable than others, which the principle of justice precludes - unless there is some aspect of those humans that is intrinsically more valuable. Maybe it's their ability to have blind faith. If so, then the creation of the humans who only believe what evidence supports (or those who put their blind faith in the wrong god!) is a blatant injustice. If God is just, then that scenario is not true.

If God has created other beings of more intrinsic value than humans, then what? I'd argue that God's values would be in direct conflict with our own - and if we're defining 'good' in terms of the general wellfare of human beings, then that argument has run into a roadblock as well.

So is it all, as the Iron Maiden song says, "For the Greater Good of God?"

9. Foreknowledge

Miller brings up the philosophical question of what can be foreknown at all. Just as 'omnipotence' does not mean God can make a burrito so hot He can't eat it, omniscience doesn't necessarily mean that God would know what would befall mankind...

It gets a little complicated here. Supposedly, God doesn't have 'free will' like humans do (in Christian theology), because God is limited to those actions that are good. God's character is described as good, so we know that God can only do things His character allows. His character apparently allowed Him to create humans - with the ability to freely choose evil (what God's character wouldn't allow God to do).

An all-knowing God, even without the gift of foresight, couldn't fail to recognize the inevitability of evil. That can't be good... that God's character would allow Him to create evil is very similar to the idea that if one hires a mercenary to murder somebody else, that person is culpable as much as the mercenary is.

Furthermore, an all-knowing God couldn't give the order to 'go forth and multiply' while assuming that humans with a lifetime of ~1,000 years living a life of 0% infant mortality, no natural disasters, no predation, disease, poison, and a limited ecosystem would be happy for long.

Oh no, it's pretty clear that even without foreknowledge, an all-knowing God would be privy to the understanding of certain inevitabilities.

"What we need to do at this point is to come up with a set of criteria which would warrant the continuance of a plan that included foreknown suffering."
Miller thought up four criteria.

1) There must be more 'good' than 'bad.'
2) The lives of the good and evil intertwine inseperably (what happens to one affects the other)
3) Nobody is discriminated against - we are all treated fairly
4) The evil does not ultimately thwart God's intention to bless the good
He decided to approach each of these criteria independently. I'll summarize and criticize in another massive conglomerate, but it's time for me to hit the hay.

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