The resurrection of theism

March 19, 2010

Today I went to a debate where an atheist and a Christian discussed the problem of evil.

In order to head off the free will defence of the problem of evil, the atheist said that he did not believe in free will, and claimed that believing in free will itself was problematic for any number of reasons. Essentially he described a world where people are entirely shaped by the world which we live in.

He then went on to say the actual world which we live in for has all sorts of pain, suffering and evil in it – and by implication God condones this suffering, in apparent contradiction to God being all-loving. He described other possible ways in which God could have “tinkered” with the world so there would be less pain and apparently be more loving.

This for me, as I sat there and watched the debate, seemingly caused all sorts of problems understanding his point of view. He viewed himself, and everyone else, as purely a product of this world, which I thought was fair enough. But in these other, seemingly better worlds he described, he simply wouldn’t exist. None of us would.

So the question arises, what if God loved us? Not just mankind, or something like mankind in one of these alternate worlds, but us as we are. The individuals who actually exist. You. Me. I have no idea why a perfect God would love us, but imagine for a minute that he did. That is surely a wonderfully good thing.

But on his own view, who we are is shaped solely by the of the environment which we live in. So to allow God’s love for us to be expressed he would have to allow us to live, seemingly God also has to allow the environment which does that, which includes pain and suffering.

When I asked him, after the debate, he gave the answer that we could still exist in another world. I am not sure, on his view at least, how that can be so. If who we are is entirely a product of our environment, how can we develop in another environment? It seems to me that we couldn’t. But to be honest, I don’t know. It might be possible. To get the argument to go through, someone would have to show that it is actually the case that the exact same person (whatever that means) can be a product of two entirely different environments. That’s a whole other debate, and one I’m far from convinced about.

PS. I would really like to know if anyone has thoughts about this. I really want to know what’s wrong with it. Is this a long debunked line of reasoning? Is there someone advocating it? What is wrong with it? Comments are welcome. Criticism is encouraged!

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12 Responses to “The resurrection of theism”

  1. Mr Z Says:

    I can’t say as an atheist that I understand why your atheist would deny free will? It is the one thing we DO have. We, despite free will, are subject in the larger sense, as a species to the environment in which we live. Without free will there would be no art, no science, nothing of that which we find most laudable in mankind.

    To me, this post makes little to no sense.

  2. Cituke Says:

    Hey, just heads up, this got posted on /r/atheism so you might see a flood of atheists here, but you haven’t been inflammatory in any sense, but rather inquisitive so I would think the response will be positive.

    As per my take:

    It all depends on what you define as free will. If you believe it is a supernatural force, I would say it doesn’t exist. My interpretation is that it is a natural force comprised of the physical make up of your brain and the chemicals/electrical discharges, I would say it does exist. When determining why someone acts in a specific way you must include the following: What their brain is like, with an emphasis on on experience from previous similar/related experiences, and what their external environment is telling them.

    That is to say that how you behave is in part related to the organic factors of your brain that the brain doesn’t control (like if you’re a boy or a girl, the chemical mix in your brain will be different), chemicals which will be mitigated by how your brain is built (if you have the brain of a calm person, you’ll be able to handle more adrenaline without freaking out, what your memories relate to the current situation as (If you remember that someone stole from you, you’d be more apt to think they did it again) and the external environment.

    You might want to find someone with a better knowledge of neuroscience, but I can say fairly safely that the idea of a supernatural force causing free will isn’t substantiated and is too extraordinary to take on faith.

  3. Just the facts, mam. Says:

    If God loved us just the way we are, it would not imply that he would not love us if we had been any different. See, we are all different people already, so it stands to reason that if he loves us all then we don’t need to be anything in particular. Yes, he could have created a world without evil, and people would be different as a consequence, but he could still love us all. The assumption that he loves us as we are says nothing of the possibility of having a world free of evil.

  4. Chucky Says:

    Hi Mr Z,

    The reason is that there is a “free will defense” offered by philosophers like Plantinga. If we do have free will, then people argue that the problem of evil fails. God does have a good reason for allowing someone to choose evil – because he values their freedom. For it to be a real choice he God has to allow that people don’t choose to do good.

    I’ve been wondering. Do you have a blog of your own?

  5. Thelonious Says:

    >someone would have to show that it is actually the case that the exact same person (whatever that means)

    Well, that’s the crux of the matter – what does it mean (free will or not) to be “the exact same person”? If fact, I think free will is a red herring here (except insofar as it seems to some people that it gets god off the hook entirely).

    Would you be the same person if you’d put on your right shoe first and you left shoe second this morning? if you’d spent an extra minute in the shower? These seem like trivial changes not affecting identity.

    Your point is an interesting one and, as far as it goes, seems valid, but it raises as many questions as it answers – why this world then? Or did he create every possible world, including the ones with far more suffering in them, even worlds (one would expect this is possible) with maximal suffering? Is the fact (supposed fact) that he loves us justification for the suffering? If a father claims to love his child as it is – that is, beaten, tortured and abused – does that justify the torture?

    In the end, I think you’ve just pushed the essential question off – either god created a world that includes suffering because there’s some ultimate greater good that it serves (“personal growth” for us? Some sense of aesthetic rightness for him?) or not – if not, then he’s a bastard and if so, we should rightly question whether the supposed purpose really justifies the suffering.

  6. Mr Z Says:

    Much of this relies on the belief that there is a God. Realizing this is not an atheist blog, if you start there you ignore the simpler explanation for pain and suffering. It exists. That anything else exists at all is the real wonderment. Wonderment, not evidence of a supernatural being. Evolution has brought us to a place where pain and suffering are much reduced from what they were thousands of years ago. Science works to reduce it further, while the church et al works toward the longevity of pain and suffering. No matter what the holy texts say, the ‘evidence’ of their value is played out on humanity by their adherents.

    That link should bring up others for the Intelligence2 debate. Watch them all.

  7. Chucky Says:

    Hi Just the Facts,

    The first part is a good point. I do not know why God would choose to love us specifically.

    But what I am not sure about is if “we had been any different” if we are actually the same person. Are we? Sure God would still love that person. But in what sense is that person me, if they don’t have all my experiences, my thoughts, my love, relationships? If I am a product of my relationships then someone born in an entirely different universe is not me.

  8. Mr Z Says:

    If you can think of parallel universes as places where each decision you make here, is made the other way in one of those universes, such that each universe is contains you in one of the possible outcomes of the world. It’s like an echo of who and what you might have been here under differing choices.

    If there is a God and he loves you as you are, then he must love the you in all parallel universes. If other universes do not contain a parallel you, then it would not be you, and whether a God would love the beings in that petri dish is up for grabs, as is the notion that he loves you as you are in this universe… which is the only one you really have to worry about.

  9. Chucky Says:

    Thank you for your excellent comments. You got it. This is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for by posting this.

    > Your point is an interesting one and, as far as it goes, seems valid, but it raises as many questions as it answers – why this world then? Or did he create every possible world, including the ones with far more suffering in them, even worlds (one would expect this is possible) with maximal suffering?

    Ah yes! Exactly these are the sorts of things that have been going through my brain too. Perhaps he created all the universes in which good outweighs the evil. I don’t know. It could be. But I guess at least I know this universe exists.

    > Is the fact (supposed fact) that he loves us justification for the suffering?

    I would say, absolutely. We all know this love justifies the suffering for the same reason we know it’s not good to alleviate the suffering in the world by destroying it in one massive atomic blast. In fact, it’s worse than that – it wouldn’t deny only people existing now but all of humanity throughout time.

    > If a father claims to love his child as it is – that is, beaten, tortured and abused – does that justify the torture?

    Not at all. That’s morally abhorent. I guess one reason I like this explanation is that God too can be horrified at the pain and suffering, but is logically forced to allow it because of his love for actual people who live (and will live in the future) in this world.

    > Either god created a world that includes suffering because there’s some ultimate greater good that it serves…

    The good that it serves is God’s love of the actual people who exist. It’s not self improvement (although that might be true) or some optimization involving the number of people who are saved, or one which maximizes our freedom.

    Anyhow thank you again for a really excellent comment.

  10. Chucky Says:

    Hi Mr Z,

    Yes. I’ve seen that debate.

  11. Pastor Andy Says:

    Hey Chuck, I jumped on here to check out your site & introduce you to my new site, but I think now that my most recent post may even help some in your question. Check out my site at: dearpastorandy.blogspot.com/2010/03/non-christians-in-hell.html
    It’s a question about heaven and hell, but there are also elements to this blog of yours.

  12. Thomas Says:

    I for one know that we do not have free will. What would such a thing mean? That regardless of input we can “choose” what our output would be? No, I react accordingly to inputs. I cannot change my mind about what I will do, because what I did was because what what caused it. You will react in a given way to a situation no matter what, because your environment and experiences let you act that way. For instance, we learn yes and no as a baby. If I want something because it makes me feel good, I say yes. I will not have the “choice” to say no. Unless of course my experiences grant me to do so. For instance if I knew that saying no would benefit me in the long run. I would say no then. There is no choice. There is only ways which we will act based on what we know

    For all intensive purposes, free will is something that we can judge others on because if someone ends up going down the wrong path, we can put them away sure just fine. Because they are a threat to others. It may not be “their” fault that they learned that killing was a good thing, but them thinking that is bad for society.

    the free will thing is not an excuse for evil though for me. Since God is all powerful/creator, he can easily give us free will that does not include evil. There should not be a debate about these things


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