Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Balancing between theism and atheism

The problem of evil consists of three main parts:

  • The problem of suffering.

  • The problem of evil choices.

  • The problem of hiddenness (which is an evil at most conditionally on God’s existing).

The theist has trouble explaining why there is so much suffering. The atheist, however, has trouble explaining why there is any suffering, given that suffering presupposes consciousness, and the atheist has trouble explaining why there is any consciousness.

Of course, there are atheist-friendly naturalistic accounts of consciousness. But they all face serious difficulties. This parallels the fact that theists have theodical accounts of why God permits so much suffering, accounts that also face serious difficulties.

So, on the above, considerations of suffering are a net tie between theism and atheism.

The theist does not actually have all that much trouble explaining why there are evil choices. Libertarian free will does the job. Of course, there are some problems with libertarian accounts of free will. These problems are not, I think, nearly as serious as the problems that theists have with explaining why there is so much suffering or atheists have with explaining why there is consciousness. Moreover, there is a parallel problem for the atheist. Evil choices can only exist given free will. Prima facie the most plausible accounts of free will are libertarian agent-causal ones. But those are problematic for the atheist, who will find it difficult to explaining where libertarian agents come from. The atheist probably has to embrace a compatibilist theory, which has at least as many problems as libertarian agent-causalism.

So, considerations of evil choices look at best as a net tie for the atheist.

Finally, there is the problem of hiddenness for the theist. But while the theist has trouble explaining how we don’t all know something so important as the existence of God, the atheist has epistemological trouble of her own: she has trouble explaining how she knows that there is no God. After all, knowledge of the highly abstract facts that enter into arguments regarding the existence of God is not the sort of knowledge that seems to be accessible to evolved natural beings.

So, considerations of knowledge of the existence or non-existence of God look as a net tie.

The problem of evil, however, exhausts the powerful arguments for atheism. But the above considerations far from exhaust the powerful arguments for theism.

The above reasoning no doubt has difficulties. But I want to propose it as a strategy for settling disputes in cases where it's hard to assign probabilities. For even if it's hard to assign probabilities, we can have good intuitions that two considerations are a wash, that they provide equal evidence. And if we can line up arguments in such a way, being more careful with issues of statistical dependence than I was above, then we can come to a view as to which way some bunch of evidence points.


Martin Cooke said...

There is no problem for the atheist in explaining consciousness: consciousness is simply a fact of the matter, like matter, space, birds and bees. A materialist might have the sort of problem that you refer to; but such problems either make the atheist reject materialism or else they turn out upon reflection to be not so serious after all.

There is a massive problem of hiddenness for any theist wanting to tie theism to a revealed religion, which is perhaps like the problem of consciousness for materialism.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Consciousness arises mysteriously at a particular point in evolutionary history. Its arising when it does is mysterious.

Walter Van den Acker said...


There are several problems with your argument here.

1 The problems with libertarian free will are far more serious than the problems that theists have with explaining why there is so much suffering or atheists have with explaining why there is consciousness. At least there are some theodicies that, altough problematic, provide some reasons to doubt that the problem of evil is as hard as some atheists think.
Likewise, if it's only arising when it does that is mysterious for consciousness, that problem too fades away compared to the complete lack of any sort of explanation for libertarian free will, both on theism and atheism.

2 While it is often claimed that theism explains consciousness, I have never actually seen what that explanation is supposed to be. Whatever the problem for a material being could be for developing consciousness, the same problem arises for an immaterial being. It is even extremely hard to see how an immaterial being can develop anything at all, since there seems to be nothing to develop.

In short, IMHO, the reasoning above not only has problems, but actually completely misses the mark.

Martin Cooke said...

It is mysterious, Alex, but that is not a problem for atheism, only for materialism.
In biological naturalism, it is like the question of where to draw the line between living and non-living things: with viruses? Similarly, there may well be lots of points where lots of consciousnesses (each with their own definition) arose.

As for pictures of that, there are several that are not materialist; some look like panpsychism, but there are lots of differences with panpsychism (as many as there are pictures). There is a problem with taking such pictures literally, since we are inside the thing pictured, with concepts that evolved to do other things; but that means that the difficulties of such picturing are not problems with the things pictured. That relates to something you said:

Where you say "knowledge of the highly abstract facts that enter into arguments regarding the existence of God is not the sort of knowledge that seems to be accessible to evolved natural beings" as though that is a problem for atheism: it is not. The biological naturalist can simply deny that we could know about God, and that therefore theism is never about God, but is always more political. Atheism is then not knowing that there is not a God, or even that there is probably not a God, but knowing that the concept of God makes no sense, not really (how could it, when our concepts evolved to help us to do other kinds of things?