This is part of a series of posts in response to "The Agnostic Inquirer" by Menssen & Sullivan.
Instead of dealing directly with the problem of evil, I'd like to focus on some of the sub-chapters in this section of the book. To start their case, Menssen and Sullivan lay out three alternatives for a world-creator: it is amoral, partly wicked, or wholly good. In covering amorality, my primary issue is the same with all discussions of morality (and properties of god, in general) -- the reliance on human intuitions.
For example, Menssen and Sullivan propose a thought experiment to show that a world creator couldn't be amoral and line up with our intuitions about what the responsibilities of a world-creator would be:
You are a laboratory scientist curious whether it is possible to breed hairless dog-faced monkeys -- and you undertake the experiment and succeed -- you have some special responsibility for the monkeys. You cannot, for instance, just toss the monkeys into a fire once you have satisfied your curiosity. Creation of sentient beings caries with it responsibilities. And creation of rational beings carries additional responsibilities. It is one thing for a laboratory scientist to breed hairless dog-faced monkeys; it is quite another to breed hairless dog-faced humans.
This passage brilliantly highlights why apologetics is such a muddy and laborious area of study. First, we're taking our assessment of what a human would be responsible for and projecting it onto god. There's also the huge assumption that the cosmic analog of a human scientist with full awareness created a universe containing 10 sextillion stars with 10 quadrillion planets during something of an intention-filled lab experiment and is now responsible for the care taking of all sentient life-forms on a single planet. A better analogy would be that NASA is responsible for collecting and taking care of all of the bacteria that grow on space vehicles and satellites prior to launch so that they don't die. It isn't impossible that a world-creator isn't aware of our small corner of the universe!
In any case, even if we grant that this thought experiment holds, it's a double edged sword. For where is this morally responsible father god when his sentient beings are dying of hunger because this designed world has such a poor distribution of farmable soil, climate and precipitation? Accusations of responsibility immediately have something to say about the Problem of Evil (though, to their credit, the authors will argue that human happiness isn't an acceptable standard for judging whether this world is the kind a good world-creator would create).
Nevermind this, however, because there's always the catch-all trump card: heaven. Divine justice will be served. Those poor and weary ones in 3rd world countries will eat their fill at god's table, so while it's unfortunate and we should try to help them, all will be made well in the end. Nevermind that there's no way to verify this. It's the final stone in the theist's air-tight but untestable hypothesis. This is why apologetics is so frustrating. There's no way to establish truth claims as reliable. If there were, only one true religion would be standing today. Instead, we have the exact opposite. The pure fact that no religion can prove another wrong is exactly the reason why people are within their consciences to throw coexist and tolerance bumper stickers on their cars. These stickers should cause believers to spend their prayer time focused on only one thought: "Where are you, God, that so many can live happily astray and ignorant of you?"
Next up, Menssen and Sullivan discuss the possibility that god is partly wicked. They quote Hume's Philo which hypothesized that there are four alternatives for the first causes of the universe: that they were all good, all wicked, partly good/wicked, or neither good or wicked (amoral). Hume concluded that amoral causes were the most likely given the evidence (the world's apparent apathy for living creatures). Menssen and Sulilvan piggy-back on this, stating that because the universe is so consistent, it is unlikely that there is either a 1) team of creators or 2) a single creator with divided moral properties. While I see their point, I disagree. Using consistency and physical laws as predictors for moral character seem unreliable. Regardless of your thoughts on the morality of a creator, physical laws really do seem amoral. I'm not sure how one would say that it's [im]moral for a world creator to bring about a universe with physical constants and laws. Morality only matters when discussing interactions with other beings.
They move on to discuss cacodaemonies, attempts to explain the existence of good in the presence of a purely evil demon, essentially anti-theodicy. They begin by making the point that it's evil as a privation of good that is the standard definition, not the other way around. You can understand goodness without reference to it being lost but not the other way around. For the most part, I get this. At the same time, I can ask, "Would you like this juicy apple?" and "Would you like a fervent beating?" without referring to either not having the apple or not having the beating. Both questions would be answered without having to explain what it's like not having the apple or not having the beating. Or perhaps they assume that the default not-getting-beaten state is a "good" and this would be lost once the beating commenced. If so, the not-eating-a-juicy-apple state would be "bad" and be lost once the apple begins to be eaten. It seems like more of a neutral start that can be improved or degraded to me.
I realize it was published after their book, but the authors might be interested in Stephen Law's Evil God Challenge, which attempts to do this exact thing -- challenge the theist to show why standard theodicies cannot be inverted to defend the existence of good in a world ruled by an omni-max evil being.
Moving on, Menssen and Sullivan go on to claim that no non-theistic standard for "world grading" exists. In other words, there is no possible way that an atheist can establish a coherent system which allows for the claim that our world is less good than any other real or possible world. They discuss some potential systems which might be used: happiness (utilitarian calculations), aesthetics, morality, and various functional standards.
For utilitarian calculations, I find it odd that they object due to the current inability to sum human happiness: "And anyway, a usable standard of goodness requires more than an 'in principle possibility' that happiness or pleasure or utility can be summed." Compare this to their definition of "possible world": "We are committed to no more than the idea that one could suppose that there are worlds different than our own." Why can I not suppose that some future development will allow utilitarian calculus to emerge? Or think that at least, in principle, if we could read minds or know the state of a person's mind/life, we could assign some type of "happiness value" to him/her? Another objection put forth is that summing happiness might allow the happiness of the many to be "purchased by the suffering of the few." But we could include in our summation a coefficient that weighted suffering more heavily than happiness so that this type of world wouldn't come out ahead of a better one with less suffering. Note this aspect of EbonMusing's posited moral system, Universal Utilitarianism:
Always minimize both actual and potential suffering; always maximize both actual and potential happiness. One final point of importance is that the two halves of universal utilitarianism, as given above, should be considered to be in logical order. That is, actual and potential suffering should be minimized before maximizing actual and potential happiness.
This system does just what I suggested above -- weight suffering more heavily than happiness. I simply want to point out that the objection is not very hefty. Given that such a calculus does not exist, we can construct it to combat any number of these types of fears.
Next up in objecting to utilitarian standards, they suggest that there is no reason to suspect that a world-creator is obligated to put human happiness and preference-satisfaction as the highest aim. Since humans value human preferences as higher than animals, why shouldn't we value a god's preferences as higher than our own? Fair enough, but one has yet to establish how we can determine god's preferences and understand why they are contradictory to human happiness and preference satisfaction. Even if one can do this, the apologist has a pretty heavy burden of explaining why god's preferences are contrary to minimizing suffering, which is a far cry from satisfying happiness and preferences. We're not talking about my desire to upgrade my rusting-out '95 Mazda Protege; we're talking about people who haven't eaten in weeks or who have very curable illnesses but lack of resources or access to proper treatment. Also, surely even a powerful master can be summoned if need is great enough and worthy enough (since we're speaking about revelation, dare I cite the widow in Luke 18?).
The use of aesthetics is another possible standard that Menssen and Sullivan suggest. I don't find it noteworthy and will pass on commenting. Next, they look at moral standards. I find it odd that they only cover one angle -- Kant's belief that a world without freedom is a world without goodness. They respond that too much freedom might result in a world with too much sorrow and pain to call it, as a whole, "good." But what of this when it comes to the free-will theodicy for the PoE? This is precisely what apologists claim: that without freedom, there would be no morally significant action and, thus, god couldn't have created a world with both free creatures and a guaranteed lack of evil. Now we hear that this is precisely why we don't have more freedom (because otherwise we could have too much suffering)? One can't have it both ways. To hold to this, Menssen and Sullivan would need to show that the world has precisely the freedom necessary to give it the property of allowing morally significant action while not allowing too much sorrow and pain. If freedom is a continuum, why can't we turn it down some more to eliminate some suffering?
Lastly, they try various "functional standards." In other worlds, hypothesize a function/purpose for the world and then claim it's not meeting it. I agree with them that functions for the universe and organisms make little sense in non-theistic language. The universe exists, living things exist... that's about all that can be said from the non-theist's point of view.
Having covered these possible standards, they cover the case that says (paraphrased), "Well, I might not be able specify an exact standard, but this world just plain doesn't make the cut, whatever the standard is." This is the intuitionist case: the world seems like it could be better even though I might not be able to define the measurement used to land "better" on some scale. They offer three objections.
First, it's hard to say whether a state of affairs is unqualifiedly good or bad. Sometimes it has to be considered relative to something else. Getting a cavity is a good thing, but only compared to the bad state of having a cavity in the first place. I get this, though I think we have plenty of bad to work with in the world without it needing to be referenced against some comparative good (a woman being raped, someone getting killed, starvation, etc.). Their second objection is that one might not even be able to tweak something while keeping everything else constant. Thus, it might not make sense to suggest that some instance of suffering could just be removed from the world since the world might not work like that. Similarly, the third and most powerful objection (in my opinion) essentially suggests that god might have created a world most optimized for good, even though it contains bad. To tinker with little bits might start on grappling with the Butterfly Effect, and thus we can't be sure that removing some instance of bad/evil won't produce even more bad/evil or a reduction of resultant goods. This is a very tricky one, and without being able to know all results from an action, it's very tough to say one way or the other. Given the vast number of instance of suffering in the world and throughout time, however, it's very, very, very difficult for me to concede that none of them could be removed without negatively impacting the universe.
After covering non-theistic options, I expected them to discuss theistic standards for grading worlds. They didn't really do this! All they say is that the theist can simply claim that the world is ordered to a good god and call it a day. How unsatisfying! They then transition by stating that a more accurate question might not be grading the world by itself, but grading how the goodness in the world exists in complement with god. Thus they present their case for why this is a world worth creating:
Still, many agree that the promise built into human beings, the beings of wondrous worth, the promise that can be brought to fruition by the ever-reliable promises of a good God, makes this world, with all its grief, a world worth creating, even though the world as we know it is passing away. In short, this is a world a good God could create if it is a world perfused by God's transforming love -- and is followed by an afterworld of the right kind.
Does the creator's love perfuse the world?
Anything due a creature is due on account of something already existing in the creature. But when a creature does not even exist, there is nothing in it to which something is due. Hence, any being owes its existence and ultimately all that is has and does to a primordial act of loving-kindness and mercy on the creator's part. If, then, there is a creator, love and mercy perfuse the world.
I'm not catching the immediate connection between creating a creature and doing so out of obvious love and mercy. What of those bald-faced monkeys? Was the act of the scientist one of "loving-kindness and mercy?" If not, why not?
Also, they've established an empty tautological definition: "This is a world a good god could create if it is a world perfused by God's transforming love." Why use the world "if" in the claim... if we already know that a good god, by definition, creates a world perfused by love? These are meaningless arguments if there is no way for the world not to be the world a good god would create because it is not perfused by god's love. We end up with "this is the world a good god would create because it is the world a good god would create."
What of not being able to establish these claims with certainty?
If what we have said offers any help, it certainly is not enough. Nor are the revelatory traditions completely satisfying. And it looks as though no entirely satisfactory explanation should be expected this side of the world's last night. Yet perhaps revelatory traditions, backed by whatever philosophy can muster, can provide enough of an explanation of the problems of evil and good for an inquirer to conclude that the world began with love, will end with love, and is moved by love all the while -- appearances notwithstanding
Here again we have reference to a temporal-spatial curtain. The best we can do is hope that despite appearances (and what else do we have to go on?) there's a separate world that has never been verified where all of this will finally make sense and be made right? What's happened is that Menssen and Sullivan have introduced language about moral responsibility and owing all of one's life to a creator due to its act of supreme "loving-kindness and mercy," and then explained the inability to verify this in the actual world we experience by asserting that there is some other world which, by definition, no living human has experienced. Pardon me if as an agnostic inquirer, I'll state that revelatory traditions along with "whatever philosophy can muster" have not convinced me that the world was created with love, will end with it, and is sustained by it at every moment.
 For more on the Evil God Challenge, see:
-- Interview with Stephen Law on CommonSenseAtheism
-- A rebuttal by Edward Feser
-- Stephen's response to Feser