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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

On Atheism: The Problem of Evil

Fans of my ongoing irregular series on atheism will be happy to know that the last installment was not the last installment.* Instead, while I have completed the series I originally promised, I will still occasionally add to this work as notions come to me. Aren't you lucky?**

In today's installment I'd like to talk about a funny little issue: the problem of evil. Many of you are probably already familiar with this but, in case you're not, the "problem of evil" is a sort of standard argument made about certain forms of religious belief. The problem goes something like this (apologies for the crude representation):

Postulates:
(1) God exists
(2) God is all-knowing
(3) God is all-powerful
(4) God is perfectly good
(5) God cares about humans

Observation:
Bad things happen to good people, pain and suffering occur for no reason.

Therefore, one or more of the following must be true:
(1) God does not exist
(2) God is not all-knowing
(3) God is not all-powerful
(4) God is not perfectly good
(5) God does not care about humans


Since certain religious traditions assert, often vehemently, that the five postulates are all true, they must then produce an explanation for the existence of evil. This practice is known as theodicy and has a long and rich intellectual tradition. Of course, it's important to note that not all religious traditions must justify the existence of evil. The religion of the ancient Greeks, for example, did not assert that any of the gods were all-powerful, all-knowing, were perfectly good or, indeed, really cared that much for humans. Thus, whatever you may think of that theology, it had no real problem with the existence of evil.

Now, it's important to note that various efforts at theodicy have produced a number of "solutions" to the problem of evil. I, of course, place solutions in quotation marks because none of them are completely compelling. Individuals will find them more or less compelling depending on their temperment. So, for example, you may be fully convinced by the notion of god's inscrutability, or that humans are so much less wise than god that we simply cannot understand how his plan actually is perfectly good, and we should not presume to judge him. Thus, this response attacks the observation above that bad things happen "for no reason" and asserts that instead they occur for a reason we cannot discern. If on the other hand you don't find this argument all that convincing, as indeed I do not, don't fret: there are plenty of other flavors for you to try. Theodicy is, after all, essentially a theological Baskin Robbins and if you hang around long enough you can try a sample of everything. There's nothing like a tiny scoop of "free will theodicy" on that little plastic spoon.

It goes without saying, of course, that atheists do not have to grapple with the problem of evil. Since we disbelieve in the existence of god in the first place, the purported properties of that entity and their implications for the world are no more meaningful for us than the purported properties of Leprechauns. Maybe fun to talk about now and then, but certainly nothing to lose sleep over. Nonetheless, there are certain persons who claim that the problem of evil is a very real one for atheists. A classic example of this comes to us from Dr. Ron Rhodes who remarked:

"...it is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point which is absolutely good. Otherwise one is like a boat at sea on a cloudy night without a compass (i.e., there would be no way to distinguish north from south without the absolute reference point of the compass needle).

The infinite reference point for distinguishing good from evil can only be found in the person of God, for God alone can exhaust the definition of "absolutely good." If God does not exist, then there are no moral absolutes by which one has the right to judge something (or someone) as being evil. More specifically, if God does not exist, there is no ultimate basis to judge the crimes of Hitler. Seen in this light, the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God, rather than disproving it."


Thus, the effort is made to turn a related problem of evil onto atheists: if you do not believe in god, then how do you judge evil?

There are a number of problems with this effort but I'm going to address some of them by focusing on Rhodes' specifically. The first problem here is that the very question presupposes what I like to think of as "metaphysical evil." What I mean by that is the idea that a category of thing known as "evil" exists independently of human judgment. If this is so, then Rhodes' analogy to the compass needle is somewhat apt: directions and physical location exist regardless of the presence or absence of an observer. The compass is simply an instrument for measuring that underlying property, much as a ruler is an instrument for measuring physical distance. If we take the position that metaphysical evil exists then, indeed, we must ask both where it comes from and how to measure it. That said, however, many atheists, myself included, don't believe in metaphysical evil. Most of us do believe that some things are "good" and others are "bad" but these are concepts that have no meaning apart from human judgment. And if both good and evil are rooted in human judgment, then human judgment is sufficient to distinguish them. Thus, Rhodes' argument is rendered invalid because it makes assumptions that do not hold for many atheists.

If we presuppose, however, that we did believe in metaphysical evil, then Rhodes' argument is still very problematic. He claims that "...it is impossible to distinguish evil from good unless one has an infinite reference point which is absolutely good." Yet, is this true? Is it impossible to measure a thing unless you have a reference point at the infinite extent of that thing? I think that even a casual reader must concede that no, it is not impossible. Consider physical distance: imagine a line of infinite extent. Having problems? Well of course you are! Infinity is a concept that has abstract meaning, and is useful mathematically, but is almost impossible for an individual to grasp. It is, in essence, utterly useless for judging distance. Similarly, an object of zero length is also very difficult to comprehend. Hell, I have enough trouble just wrapping my brain around the planck length. Consider, as well, temperature: can you imagine "infinitely hot" or "infinitely cold"? I can't and I doubt you can either. As a matter of fact, in order to measure these very real properties of the universe humans didn't spend any time at all trying to find an infinite reference point. With distance the first measures were almost certainly based on body parts and thus we explained distances by saying "thirty feet." Over time our measurements have grown more precise but, at the end of the day, we took something arbitrary and comprehensible and measured relative to it.

Likewise with temperature, the Fahrenheit scale and the Celsius scale were both calibrated relative to the freezing and boiling points of water at sea level. Why water? Why boiling and freezing? Why not? The selection was semi-arbitrary, owing to the significance of these temperatures for humans who are- after all- mostly water. Indeed, we have a third scale, Kelvin, calibrated such that it equals zero only when an object has absolutely no heat at all.*** Yet, none of these scales worry about an "infinite reference point," and, indeed, such a point isn't even meaningful. That is to say, since temperature is a measure of the kinetic energy in particles of matter, we can only speak of temperature increasing until the matter itself is converted to energy. Thus, there are maximum and minimum temperature points that fall far short of infinity. As a consequence, it is simply not the case that we require points of infinite extent to measure a thing and, indeed, such points are entirely useless for such a project. Instead, we require only arbitrarily chosen points against which we can judge other things. For evil we often use things like "murder" or "rape" which are hardly infinite, but quite useful for judging the relative badness of certain acts. And, indeed, I would argue that something like "infinitely good" is just as impossible to grasp as "infinitely long" and, therefore, equally useless for making moral judgment.

Now, to take up the final part of Rhodes' argument: does the lack of an infinite and metaphysical form of good and evil make it impossible to make moral judgments? Oh, no. Atheists have a number of solutions to this problem ranging from consensual definitions of good and bad behavior to something derived from natural law. Many atheists recognize, however, that regardless of how you justify and legitimate moral behavior, at the end of the day individuals must make their own moral choices with the advice of their society. Indeed, many religious people grasp this as well, it's just not talked about. One must always take responsibility for one's judgments of others and atheists by and large do not attempt to side-step this responsibility by hiding behind the murky demands of a hypothetical god.**** How do I judge morality? Maybe someday I'll tell you but not today- I've written enough.

So, in the end, Rhodes' claims simply do not hold water: measuring something that does not exist is hardly a pressing concern, infinite reference points are not useful for measurement, and the non-existence of god does not make judging behavior untenable. And in an ironic point, does this blog post constitute a sort of atheist theodicy?

Maybe so. And as such I invite you to judge it as critically as you would garden variety theodicy.


* Ha ha. Aren't I clever?

** No.

*** Just FYI: that's really f-ing cold.

**** I should probably note here that some atheists come up with some fairly stupid bases for their morality and I do not mean to imply that they're all perfect or something. Likewise, I know a considerable number of theists who grapple fully with moral conflicts. I am not attempting to tar them with the same brush as Rhodes but, rather, am trying to respond to his particular stupid argument.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Rhodes is simply being awkward/unclear. "Infinite reference point" is nonsensical since a point, by definition, has neither length, width, or depth. Rhodes just means "absolute." I suspect that he just didn't want to write "absolute reference point which is absolutely good."

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 6:32:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Perhaps, but I don't think your interpretation corrects the flaws in the underlying argument.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 6:41:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

But it undermines your critique of him. If I'm right, Rhodes agrees that the meaningfulness of temperature arises from the very fact that absolute zero does exist. As you say, the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales were constructed to be meaningful to us, as humans. Setting aside the fact that you can convert from Celsius and Fahrenheit to Kelvin, his point is simply that without absolute upper and lower limits to temperature, we'd always be stuck with a "relative-to-human-standards" understanding of temperature. So too with good and evil, he'd argue. Without (an accessible and knowable) God, we'd always be stuck with a "relative-to-human-standards" understanding of good and evil.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 8:58:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

But it undermines your critique of him. If I'm right, Rhodes agrees that the meaningfulness of temperature arises from the very fact that absolute zero does exist.

I see your argument, but I think you're mistaken. The meaningfulness of temperature depends not a bit on the existence of an absolute zero point. Imagine for a moment that it were possible to heat, or cool, something infinitely. In such a case there would be no true "zero" because you could always make a thing colder. In this case, while zero would be absent, the relative difference between the temperature where water freezes and the one where water boils would be equally meaningful for humans. Further, we wouldn't need any knowledge of the possibility of infinite cold or heat in order to construct a measurement system for temperature. We would simply choose a temperature of convenience on which to base our system and work from there- more or less as Fahrenheit and Celsius did.

Keep in mind that the zero points in Celsius and Fahrenheit are essentially arbitrarily chosen values of some convenience for human life. Yet, still, those systems measure temperature quite well. Put differently, the two most common systems for measuring temperature- and they work very well- are "relative to human" standards. Rhodes' underlying argument- that you need an infinite and absolute referent for measuring things- is simply wrong. Arbitrarily defining a point and working out does just as well.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 9:11:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that his point is that something can't be measured w/o an absolute reference point (that's clearly absurd). It's just that w/o an absolute reference point, (a) all measures are ultimately relative and, therefore, (b) meaning can only come from our constructed human standards.

If temperature were unbounded, strictly speaking, things could only be "hotter" or "colder" than other things. But with absolute zero, you have the idea of "true cold" (the absence of heat) Rhodes' argument is that the same is true of good and evil. His argument is simply that in the case of good and evil, "absolute zero" is God. Certainly there are atheists who have their own "absolute zero" (though it's probably not God). (That's a difficult thing for theists to understand, probably more difficult than atheists understanding theists' sense of morality.)

(The second issue, of course, is that Rhodes appears to believe that God's "standards" of morality are founded on a different basis than Man's, so that you can't actually convert from Man's understanding of morality to God's in the same way that we convert between different temperature scales. Hence his "lost w/o a compass" statement. But I don't think that that's your primary concern here.)

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

I think you should be careful about intuiting Dr. Rhodes' meaning. He was very specific about claiming that measurement was impossible without an infinite reference point and that god, being "absolutely good" was an example of such an infinite reference point. He stated as much twice in just the short passage I quoted. And as should be clear from my post, I agree with you that his approach to this problem is "clearly absurd." If nothing else, there is a real difference between "absolute zero" and "infinity". Zero, after all, is stationary, whereas infinity is... well... infinite.

His true point, however, essentially boils down to: "If you believe in anything like good and evil then you must believe in god," as summed up in his final sentence, "...the reality of evil actually requires the existence of God, rather than disproving it." Indeed, I am quoting a tract intended to coach people through evangelizing to atheists. Thus, in responding I am mostly addressing the issue of whether an ability to measure or judge badness necessarily implies an infinite reference point (e.g. god). And, this in mind, my points boil down to:

(a) Many atheists don't view good and evil in the same sense as Rhodes anyway, so in a real sense his entire dilemma is mooted because we make use of different definitions,
(b) That, even if we were to use the same definition, the "infinite" reference point he insists upon is essentially incomprehensible and therefore useless, and,
(c) That, even if we could grasp something like "infinitely good", it is unnecessary to have an "absolute" reference point in order to measure anything. Therefore, his logical argument for why the existence of "evil" requires that god exist is untenable.

I think the point you seem more interested in exploring is whether or not it is in any way problematic that meaning can "...only come from our constructed human standards." Indeed, in your earlier response you commented that, "Without (an accessible and knowable) God, we'd always be stuck with a 'relative-to-human-standards' understanding of good and evil. [emphasis added]" My interpretation of what you've written leads me to think that you view a definition of good and evil developed by humans, rather than by a hypothetical deity, to be somehow less worthy or useful. On this point I disagree with you, but that's not really the point. However interesting that line of argumentation might be, it's not the line Rhodes was prosecuting directly in the quoted passage.

And you're right, Rhodes might also make an argument that god's morality is founded on different standards than man's but this reduces to a "god works in mysterious ways" argument which is tantamount to, "I don't know and I can't know." I, and most other atheists I suspect, find such arguments to be entirely unsatisfying.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger Aspentroll said...

People all over the world who haven't heard of Christianity
or don't care about it have a moral code of some kind. Their society demands that the people get along with one another so they make laws that pertain to their way of thinking and not necessarily religious laws. The North American Indian people didn't know Christianity until the meddling of the Christian explorers. They had rules
against stealing from one another, killing each other and there was punishment if they failed to comply.

I don't think Rhodes knows his ass from his elbow when he makes those kind of statements. Of course we know his ability to make statements is blurred by his
weird beliefs.

Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:05:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Aspentroll,

In defense of Rhodes (and I can't believe I just said that) his argument really pertains to most monotheistic religions in which the deity is not generally cranky. So the quote I used doesn't exclusively apply to Christianity, although you and I both know that's where he's headed.

Thanks for the comment!

Thursday, August 21, 2008 4:02:00 PM  
Blogger mig said...

Wow, okay, two+ years later and I find the need to comment and disagree. Yay for moderation policy?

(Don't take it the wrong way, I'm literally reading every single post on this blog backwards a few per day, so rather than be annoyed that I'm quibbling something two years old, you should rather be pleased/disquieted that I seem to be stalking your brain)

Anyhow, I would agree with the original poster that talking about absolute zero undermines your critique of Rhodes.

Absolute Zero is a form of "natural infinity" in our meme-space, as it does represent the physical interpretation of unapproachably "infinite coldness" in terms of the "infinite absence of heat"

It represents, essentially, NOT a real "zero" in our measuring system but instead "one divided by infinity." And those are very very different ideas to a physicist.

In these terms, one could then describe "infinite goodness" as the "infinite absence of evil" such that (excuse the SATisms) God:AbsoluteZero::Evil:Heat, and from a mathematical perspective, that's a fairly valid analogy.

Now, of course, the counter argument is that God and Absolute Zero are both totally unreal things that can't ever exist in our universe.

And the counter to that is that plenty of people use those constructs as if they do, etc etc.

Anyhow, much as I normally nominally agree with your ideas quite cheerfully, this one leaves a bit of twine at the end to be grabbed and unraveled.

Like I'm sure you care. :)

Saturday, September 18, 2010 4:05:00 PM  

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