04 January 2011

Post Series: My Cumulative Case (Index)

I'd like to start "putting on paper" why, exactly, I don't believe anymore. I think I'll find it helpful to articulate what I've come too see as the key arguments for me thus far and also think this will serve as a "storage tank" for material for my "mini-book" I'd like to write as a definitive statement of non-belief to be released this year in PDF format. This goal is part of my list of hastily put together resolutions for 2011.

I'll keep this index updated/linked as my list of sub-posts develops. My current brainstorm is as follows:
Update 2/7/2011: After thinking about this more, I came to the decision that I would also like to include a section covering the areas where my jury is out -- where I have no explanation, am unsatisfied with any explanation, or just plain don't know.
  • Morality/ethics
  • Determinism/free-will
  • The origin of life
  • Materialism/physicalism and consciousness

I think this sounds like quite a nice topic list. I'm hoping I'll be able to get some good feedback and criticism. I'm also aware that I'm doing this somewhat in ignorance; much of my book list remains unread. Believe me, I would love to vanish for months and read all of those books and blog through each in detail. I'm not sure that this is realistic, though, and I wonder if the best approach is to just start the mind on a path and course-correct as I move forward.

We'll see what comes of this. Hopefully it will be at least entertaining to my few readers!


DoOrDoNot said...

happy new year, Hendy. Glad you enjoyed your holidays. Cute kitchen video, btw. You certainly enjoy assembling far more than I! I look forward to your blog posts. I'm esp. interested in whatever your impossibility of evil argument is. I'm also interested particularly in your response to nihilism. Good luck on your blogging project.

Hendy said...

@DoOrDoNot: I'm glad you're interested in my "impossibility of evil" argument. I'd call it one of the most exciting ideas I've ever had in my "quest." I finally managed to track down where it originated in Aug 2010 on CommonSenseAtheism. It took a long time, but I found it.

The discussion essentially starts HERE and culminates with my "thesis" HERE. I propose three ways that free will could exist but evil could be lessened or removed without hindering this (thus undermining the free will defense to the POE which states that god could not have created creatures that are free and necessarily always choose the good. The argument essentially says that the two properties (free and necessarily good) are mutually exclusive).

It is my #3 proposal that I would call the argument from the "Impossibility of Evil." Namely, allow free will to exist but make the carrying out of evil akin to the hardest math/engineering/science/philosophical problem ever conceived. Make figuring out how to actually do evil a cousin to figuring out what happened before the Big Bang. Let us imagine murder but for some reason find it a practical impossibility in the same way as figuring out how to make a Star Trek holodeck or cure cancer.

I hope to develop that more, but I really, really liked it when it came about. Hopefully I'm not excited about nothing.

Hendy said...

Oh... and in case it's not clear, we'd then be completely "free" to do evil but limited by our human capacities with respect to actually doing it, just like we're "free" to cure cancer but have not figured out how. God could have created a the problem of carrying out evil quite solvable but so difficult that he knew we would not figure it out before the heat death of the planet.

Even if "mental sin" (ill will, jealousy, etc.) were still in the mix, one could still argue that the world would be better if jealousy were possibly but theft was not or if ill will were possibly but murder and rape were not.

As far as I can tell, the Problem of Evil wins if it can show that the world could have been any better whatsoever, for god necessarily needs to have created the best possible world to jive with his omni-max characteristics. With the free will defense out, essentially the apologist is left only with the "mystery card" which is, in my opinion, a non-answer (it simply says that only god knows best and some reason exists for evil that makes existence and the afterlife better, but we'll never know until we die).

Anonymous said...

I read some of your thoughts on POE about a month ago and had some cool thoughts I wanted to query you about, but now forgot them. So I'll pose what's on my mind now. It seems that this setup makes evil vs. good completely binary, on or off with no gradations. While that is a Calvinistic view, it is not how we experience it. The good we do can be tinged with evil motivations, or vice versa.
(I do believe in one sense in the light vs. dark, good vs. evil understanding, which is binary in how we judge a "thing", such as murder, death, sickness, pain. But I just mean that our lived reality, and who we ARE, saint or sinner, is mixed while on this earth.)
To make evil possible to will, but complex to achieve would solve the problem of a serial killer, but it would take away so much of who we are. Let's say I buy a gift for my wife... but in reality I didn't work hard enough at thinking about what SHE really wanted, and got something we both liked, and in reality I'm really just buying something for myself. What if she, in her sweet way, can laugh and forgive and still enjoy it, knowing of my cute adorable selfishness? That's part of what makes her who she is (let's call that part of her good, or anti-evil), but she wouldn't have the ability to express it without my minor evil being manifest. Much of our goodness is when we are overcoming evil.

Is it possible God had to allow some evil to be achievable in order for the anti-evil to work? If so, then it becomes the ever present "where do you draw the line?" question. Which evil is so bad that God should have made it unachievable for me to do? Somewhere between rudeness or gluttony and mass murder. But where? -Brian

Anonymous said...

Just re-read your previous comment where you touch a bit on what I am getting at... ie. jealousy better than being able to commit theft. In my example, I still had some good desire to please my wife, and did take her tastes into account. If I was completely selfish, maybe no gift at all is purchased and I spend that money on myself in other ways. So my evil and my goodness are both in the act. Which is then reacted to by my wife with either goodness or evil or a mixture of both as well. Then after 50 years of trying to shed evil and getting better and purging selfish motivations, the two love each other in a much more beautiful way. Isn't this better, in the microcosm of that one marriage, that they learned and willed (and cooperated with grace) over time to become as one with each other, rather than a poof-perfectly created robotic love for each other without the struggle of always forgiving and loving each other for 50 years? -Brian

Hendy said...

@Brian: Thanks for your comments. I've been pretty out of touch with any theistic/apologetic thinking/reading for perhaps more than a year. I feel a bit rusty and already the whirlwind of philosophical background and thoughts on all of this seem to have been diminished.

In any case, I understand your point. Things are mixed, perhaps we can't completely remove one without losing the significance of the other, etc. I think my point is that counter-apologetics typically ask, "Is there evil of such magnitude and/or un-apparent redemptive qualities such that if a God existed, this sort of evil would also not exist."

Thus, it doesn't really work to simply challenge me to draw the line and ask, "Well, even if that sort of evil didn't exist... would you really be satisfied?" The question is simply whether or not it is conceivable that the current line could be moved at all without losing the sort of encounters you highlight.

I think in shifting to the sort of lower level human struggles, you've missed the cases I'm getting at, which are the heart-shattering tragedies that almost inevitably lead us to ask, "Why?" Would your case be that we need school shootings, tsunamis, child molestation, etc. in order to really experience and appreciate that which is good?

Again, I guess the point is that if the line could be conceivably moved at all, then it is unlikely that an omni-max God is in charge of this world. My thought experiment responds to the idea that God could not remove or prevent evil without removing free-will. I'm suggesting that there are already all sorts of things that I can "will" (or at least desire), but for physical or intellectual reasons, I'm not able to actually achieve them. Yet theists do not consider these to be an override of free will (I can't jump over buildings for example, even though I desire it). If we can bump any of these more tragic types of evil into the desired-by-bad-people-but-not-physically-or-intellectually-achievable category, then it is not true that God cannot remove such evils without imposing on free will.

Does that clarify anything?

Anonymous said...

Yes, I think I get what your are saying. I am trying to be all-inclusive of large evils to small evils - and contrasted small evils with small loves. What I didn't contrast it with was extreme acts of love. I wonder if we can really know how much "worse" the world would be if Mother Teresa had never lived, not only in her immediate impact of those she came in contact with, but probably moreso in her inspiration to the world. I wonder how many millions in the world have been inspired to be more loving at the mention of her name.

So if you took both Hitler and Ma Teresa out of history, would it be a net gain or a net loss to humanity? No way for me to know the answer to that. But is it conceivable that she used her free will to accomplish as much good as Hitler did bad (her impact would be much more dependent on ripple effects than Hitler's)? So - IF God exists and If He sent Jesus, then the most good that's ever been done for humanity was when Jesus won eternal life for humanity on the cross. If Jesus was fully man, did Jesus have the free will to forgo the cross? Was the temptation in the desert, and later in the Garden of Gethsemane, real temptations? Did He have a choice not to die? Was His free will necessary to accomplish that good? Was Ma Teresa's free will necessary? Just thinking out loud. I think part of the POE has to do with God sharing dominion with humans.

Your point about not being free to defy gravity is interesting. We are limited often from doing all that we wish, sometimes by laws of nature, lack of know-how, sometimes by other humans (when we put a serial killer in jail), sometimes (less common) through divine intervention. So we are not free to do ALL the evil we desire - we are also not free to do ALL the good we desire. I don't know what that means - just thinking again.

Circling back, maybe I am wrong, but maybe God has only given us limited free will already, and has already limited the amount of evil that we can do. If that's true, then the POE becomes not why does evil exist, but why does THIS level of evil exist?

That becomes very personal, because I certainly could not wipe out evil in the world - but I could lower the amount of evil. This is honestly a new thought as I am typing.... it moves the onus from being on God (only God could eliminate evil) to being on me. I CAN work to increase love and reduce evil (at least any suffering caused by my own greed). -Brian

Anonymous said...

PS - now that you've responded, it's only fair that you know I know you. Can you e-mail me at and I'll send you an e-mail? -Brian

Hendy said...

@Brian: Just a few comments to respond:

1) I'm not suggesting that any good needs to be removed in order to remove evils such as, to use your example, those committed by Hitler. Also, just cause, the jury seems to be out on Mother Theresa's goodness, at least in some circles. I don't have much of a stance on her one way or another (I'm fairly uninformed), but at least want to mention that.

2) Fair enough point about laws and not being free to do good that is also prohibited by physical laws. And laws might not have been the best barrier to use. Recalling my actual case, I believe I suggested a realm in which it would be so complicated to do certain evils that we might not figure it out.

For example, an evil requiring a time machine such that a single person could travel back in time, kill individuals at the moment of their birth, and then vanish back to the "future" (our present). Far fetched and weird... but more like that. We don't know whether or not time travels is possible. Imagine that it is, but we haven't figured out how to do it. Something like that. Then again, perhaps you'd say that time travel is more like a "tool," and not having it prevents good as well.

3) Which brings me to the last point that these types of discussions, even though I consider this absolutely civil, polite, and non-antagonistic, are just plain tiring and the reason I gave up on apologetics. There's a difference between internal consistency and truth. You clearly know the proper defenses to suggestions that "god could have done better." Preservation of free will, the choice required for "true love" to be real, greater goods that come about from evils, and personal virtue increase / soul-building.

Sure, those are internally consistent... but the bottom line is that none of us will really know if they pan out until we die. And for the scenario where I bet my chips, I'll just go to sleep forever and not even "know" then :)

So, we could go back and forth forever, me with my points, scenarios, thoughts, etc., and you with yours... and we'll happily discuss various ideas with neither one of us really thinking the other's scenario is true. I believe in the Litany of Tarski. If god is real, I want to believe god is real. If not, then not.

At the present, I don't have the evidence or thoughts I need to manifest belief, and that's where I am.

4) Email sent; awaiting the uncovering of the mystery identiy.

Anonymous said...

You are right that neither of us are beginners on these types of ideas. However, your thoughts have spurred new ideas in my mind that I'd never considered before. Something about the process of writing that can cause new ideas to bubble up. Also, I had never heard the term 'soul-building' before this blog, or applied the concept to this issue, but I suppose it fits. As far as 'proper' defenses, there are only effective & convincing or those that miss the mark, right? :-)

Since the last time above, I was thinking in particular about comparing an extremely bad person with a very good person and their impact on society. It occurred to me that evil acts can sometimes lead others to be evil as well (such as spreading hatred for a particular race or group of people, or inspiring revenge), but it can also inspire others to do good (inspire the opposite), which can cancel out the bad to some degree. On the other hand, when someone does good, it can inspire others to also do good. But it rarely seems to inspire the opposite. People will donate to a Holocaust museum, for example, to be part of the effort to make "never again" be true. But no one would donate to a museum against Mother Teresa's work among the poor in order to stop people from imitating her and helping the poorest of the poor. So a good person's actions can have positive secondary impacts that may go far beyond their own life - whereas a evil person's actions can be blunted by the good it inspires in others.

That doesn't make any point in a debate and is a bit off topic, it's just a new idea I hadn't had before (I'm sure others have). So, for me, conversation on any "deep" topic is always enjoyable. I will watch for your e-mail. - B

jwhendy said...

@Brian: I emailed you on 1/17. Double checked the email address, and it's correct (at least copying and pasting your address above into my search field in gmail finds the email in my sent folder). Perhaps it's in your junk folder -- my subject line was, "John from technologeekery," which was perhaps too spammy sounding.

I'd have to think more about the secondary repercussions of actions. While I'm somewhat inclined to agree, I'm also thinking of school shootings and wondering if the first few 1) hadn't been committed, or 2) publicized (or similarly, if we lived without easy access to news across the country) if similar, seemingly copy-cat, incidents would have occurred.

Certainly there's the ability for individuals to perpetuate bad deeds via influence, or we wouldn't have the saying, "Show me your friends, and I'll show you who you are." There seems to be some transmission, regardless of good/bad.

Anonymous said...

Yep - copycats are a real problem.

It's possible that my yahoo account is acting up again, I've had situations where an e-mail will show up a month after it was sent. Or, it's possible I accidentally deleted it. Sorry for the hassle. You may want to try

jwhendy said...

@brian emailed there too.

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