A discussion between a Sage (agnostic) and a Scholar (theist)
Sage: “War, pestilence, murder, natural calamities, even the savagery of predatory animals. The prevalence of suffering and evil belies the existence of God.
Scholar: “Ahh, you speak of the vexing problem of evil.
Sage: “Your applying a philosophical label lessens not one whit the pain and malevolence in our world.
Scholar: I use that label not to belittle the issue but to respect it. Why does God, a God we hold as possessing omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence, allow evil and suffering? That issue troubles us, deeply.
Sage: “More than that, causes many to simply disbelieve.
Scholar: “No doubt. Can I thus offer some ideas on this?
Scholar: “Let me start with the omniscience of God.
Sage: Yes, traditional theology, which we assume here, holds God is all knowledgeable, including knowledgeable about the future.
Scholar: “Yes. Now humans also work to know the future. We look to predict prospective events, to simulate such complex developments as global warning, economic growth, demographic trends, upcoming weather. And so on.
Sage: “Your point?”
Scholar: “Given God possesses omniscience, God too can no doubt perform simulations.
Sage: “Okay, not unreasonable. But why this exposition? Why posit God must simulate the future if he knows it.
Scholar: “To address a problem with free will.
Scholar: “God’s omniscience implies God knows our choices, even before we make them. Does this fore knowledge of God predetermine our choices and thus obviate our free will?
Sage: “Yes, agreed, free will and omniscience present a quandary. What is your approach?
Scholar: “God has diminished his own omnipotence by granting humans freedom. Similarly, to prevent his omniscience from undermining that freedom, God would diminish, voluntarily, his omniscience by removing foreknowledge of our free will decisions.
Sage: “If you desire that approach, I will let you proceed, but your approach is a hypothesis only.
Scholar: “As is much of what we offer about God’s nature,.
“Given that God freely relinquishes exact knowledge of individual actions, he could, and I will judge would, backfill his blocked knowledge with simulations.
Sage: “You describe a God that runs a trial of the universe before actualizing it.
Scholar: “Would that not be prudent? But we should not view God as if seated at a computer running weather projections. God likely imagines, simulates and actualizes universes essentially instantaneously.
Sage: “Now, you refer to universes, plural, to be clear.
Scholar: “Yes. Given the traditional God of standard theology, I can not readily conceive such a God actualizing just one universe or one sentience.
Sage: “Would God not create the best universe, and not inferior universes to the best?
Scholar: “Which would you declare better, a Da Vinci painting or a Bach fugue? What event would you watch, the World Series of baseball or the Stanley Cup of hockey? A near impossibility exists in placing these relatively simple items on the same value scale. Do we realistically think we could do so with entire universes and differing brands of sentience, i.e. evaluate them on some scale to declare one the best? We can not, at least not readily.
Sage: “Could not God create a singular, absolute scale of value?
Scholar: “Possibly, for a divine existence. But for the messy stuff of actuality, I would say not.
“Even so, we face a second issue of infinite progression. If I define a best universe or culture, could I not add one more item to make it better. We can conceive doing so along multiple avenues, for example making the best bigger, or adding another sentient species, or increasing pleasure, and so. As long as we have no logical manner to dispense with infinity, we will face difficulties defining the best universe.
Sage: “You possess no evidence God created multiple universes or differing sentient species. You engage in speculation.
Scholar: “If God sat beside you, and indicated he created multiple universes, would you tumble over in shock? Not likely. And we have no observational evidence since we can not, yet, detect other universes. And if Christ spoke of multiple universes he would be like teaching physics to a kindergartner. In his time, in fact in the times of all Bible scripture, no reference point existed for our current concept of a universe, or even heavenly bodies able to sustain alternate sentience.
Sage: “I will accept, at some level of possibility, that God creates multiple universes. You still dance around the core issue, the contradiction between the prevalence of evil and the beneficence of God.
Scholar: “I need to develop another initial point if I may, on value.
Sage: “Please do so.
Scholar: “I just touched on that in our discussion on best universes, but now let’s delve deeper.
“Now, a standard argument on God’s permitting evil posits that compensating and linked goods flow from the evil and suffering. I will apply the term ‘value’ to these goods.
Sage. “Agreed. Agreed that a standard argument seeks to identify compensating and linked goods. I emphasize linked. The good, value to use your term, must of necessity flow from the evil and suffering.
Scholar: “Yes, understood.
“Now on value, let us identify features of our universe, which we could consider having value, or at least we find interesting and attractive.
Sage: “Certainly. I would caution not to rely on theistic concepts, such as souls, or salvation, or original sin, or demons. Those concepts arise from theology, not philosophy.
Scholar: “Agreed, for theistic concepts, we posit only God and his traditional characteristics.
“Now on the attributes of our universe, I will start with self-emergence. Our universe spawns complexity from non-complexity, generates more organized entities, including notably life, from less organized entities, for example star dust.
“Our universe exhibits a closely related, but still distinct, attribute, order. From the very smallest scales to the very largest scales, our universe exhibits symmetries and regularities of amazing intricacy but at the same time simplicity.
Sage: “Are you arguing fine tuning?”
Scholar: “No, I am not arguing our exquisite universe proves God. Rather I am arguing that God, if he created the universe, filled it with value.
Sage: “Thank you. Continue.
Scholar: “Our universe also exhibits enormity, on many vectors: in its size; in its longevity; in its diversity of physical, chemical and biological features; in its number and diversity of animate and inanimate entities. In this enormity, the universe sustains a balance, a rather exquisite equilibrium of destruction and accumulation, of birth and death, of extinction and emergence, and does so without this dynamism extinguishing the richness of the universe, or worse, spiraling itself down to self-destruction.
Sage: “Agreed. Well know attributes of our universe. Value though?
Scholar: “Consider a simple example, grandfather clocks. Such clocks that require less manual correction provide more value than those that say need manual adjustment daily. That value includes the pragmatic value of reduced adjustment effort, as well as the aesthetic value of an superb design, and a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from the application of human intellect.
“To reduce the need for manual correction, early on builders of grandfather clocks added different metals in the pendulum to offset thermal expansion, and streamlined the pendulum bob to reduce air resistance.
Sage: “Okay. Yes, agreed, mankind places value on the sophistication of designs and on the efficiency and elegance of blending form and function.
Scholar: “To a not trivial degree, I would offer. Architects, engineers, inventors, couturiers, interior decorators, designers, mechanics, and more, pride themselves on achieving clean and effective design, and will work at times tirelessly, though multiple iterations, at achieving and perfecting such.
“Given a God that created our universe, his design epitomizes elegance.
Sage: “Okay. We value good design. And the universe instantiates a notable design. However the question remains could God have created the excellence in the design of the universe but with less evil and suffering. The mother of a sick child cares not about the grandeur of the universe.
Scholar: “Understood. But the grandeur of the universe can inspire the mother and child to perseverance, even in sickness. Even if they do not believe in a supreme deity.
“And not all value must flow to humans. God can create value for its own sake.
Sage: “Okay, somewhat possible. But again, do these grand values of our universe, or any value you site, require evil and suffering? What links your value to the necessity of evil and suffering? Our core question lies there.
Scholar: “Yes, I have not lost site of that.
“Let me give an overview. I will argue that the inherent nature of an actuality in time and space creates limitations, even for an omnipotent divine being, that necessitate evil and suffering to produce good. Our God, while divinely perfect, must work within the constraints of an actuality. He can not create a square circle, or a still wind. Thus in any given universe God maximizes value verses evil and suffering within the logical and physical constraints inherent in the basic fabric of that given universe. He does so through knowledge and simulations of possible universes to determine which universes provide optimum value.
Sage: “Okay, a rather ambitious logic. But I sense you have more to say on value per se.
Scholar: “Yes. Let me switch our value focus to life. For both animals and humans, our universe provides pleasures, pleasures as simple as the taste of food and the comfort of grooming, to the joy of maternal bonding and the contentment of group companionship.
“Humans enjoy added pleasures: the appreciation of art, the joy of conversation, the uplifting of music, the love of a spouse, the kindness of a friend, the happiness of a child, the encouragement of a compatriot, the invigoration of physical activities, the pleasure of intellectual pursuits, the elation of success, the pride of accomplishment, even something as small as the comfort of a favorite chair or as enduring as the smile of a friend.
“These pleasure do not arise at random. We can seek them. We can choose what to pursue through our freedom to act in accordance to our will.
“And those pleasures are heightened by our consciousness and awareness of those pleasures and satisfactions.
Sage: “Interesting and positive list. You neglect, however, the opposite side of the coin. You miss the suffering of disease, the hardship of disaster, the daily grind of poverty, the horror of crime, the death and devastation of war.
Scholar: “No doubt. In our digital age, we can find ourselves overwhelmed with almost incessant reports of such evil and suffering. I highlight here the at times unreported good, and that our lives and our world and our universe contain value, significant value.
Sage: “Reasonable. Can we turn to your linkage of this good to necessity for evil and suffering?
Scholar: “Certainly. I will restate my core proposition: despite divine omnipotence, the basic logical and physical fabric of actuality constrains that omnipotence from creating value without evil and suffering.
Sage: “And I will restate that this is a bold proposition.
Scholar: “Noted. I offer two prongs to this proposition. First actuality contains attributes in opposition. Going left eliminates going right. Decay fights growth. Space demands being located. Mass resists movement. These common sense metaphysical characteristics of our actuality limit even the omnipotent.
Second, in an actuality, events follow paths, connected causal sequences, in a linked chain. One can not select the best elements of disparate paths. One can only pick a best path, not any random collection of best elements.
Sage: “Okay, okay not that I agree, but that I comprehend.
Scholar: “To illustrate the first prong, let’s take up the infamous example of the injured fawn. A forest fire wounds a young deer, who lies in anguish for several days. Why did God not prevent the anguish?
Sage: “Yes, the injured fawn example certainly has received renowned discussion.
Scholar: “Let me say first that yes God could, in this one situation, relieve the anguish. Any maybe in isolated cases does. But one fawn relieved, with due respect, descends to such minuscule trivialness as to be no more than you not swatting at a gnat or not stepping on an ant.
“Why doesn’t God intervene and relieve anguish more generally? For many fawns, or every fawn, for every animal in death?
Why? I mentioned it, due to opposing attributes.
Scholar: “As the intervention of God increases, mankind’s ability to determine the systematic working of our universe decreases. While we can partially disentangle these two items, we can not totally. As noted before, one can not go left and right simultaneously, and, though not opposites by definition, as are left and right, more divine intervention implies less ability by mankind to extract the systematic working of the universe.
Sage: “An omnipotent and omniscience God could solve that quandary. For example, such a God could have designed our universe without animals suffering at all.
Scholar: “Let’s dive deeper then. Assuming you enjoy wine, would you suffer pain if wine never existed? Unlikely, the absence of wine would cause no pain, not one I rate as worthy of a God extinguishing.
“Now consider food. Lacking food, you would soon feel hunger, mild then strong then all encompassing, until you entire effort would be to locate food to relieve the hunger pains. Or consider warmth. Or water. Or cause of injury.
“The point? Pain and suffering motivate us to survive, more than just something like the pleasure of wine. Those best motivated and equipped to survive do so, enabling the survival and strengthening of the species, in other words the core of the continuity of life. To the degree God designed this pressure for survival, the process works exquisitely and robustly. So again, attributes in tension, suffering verses motivation and the continuity of life.
Sage: “God could have designed different motivations.
Scholar: “You refer to hypotheticals. I have pointed out the actual, majestic quality of our universe to spawn life, to span great eons and distances, to maintain balance, to evolve dynamically, and to ultimately create consciousness.
“Would our universe operate so exquisitely absent the existing mechanisms inherent in life for self-preservation. I offer that in our actuality the attributes of self-preservation are entangled with the existence of suffering. Can you show otherwise? Can you demonstrate a design for life that sustains itself and evolves across an approximate billion year span, while following systematic laws we can discover, while progressing through enormous cycles of destruction and regeneration?
Sage: “God is clever. God could intervene selectively to relieve suffering, while still providing sufficient discomfort to motivate self-preservation and drive evolution.
Scholar: And what of mankind’s ability to discern the working of the universe in the face of God’s intervention, dare say abrogation, of its constancy and regularity.
Sage: God could similarly intervene selectively to assist in mankind’s acquisition of knowledge.
Scholar: “Okay, so Neanderthal man receives knowledge of quantum physics?
Sage: “No, God provides assistance tactically, as needed.
Scholar: “The Roman Empire arose in part, great part, due to the ingenuity and knowledge of its architects, crafts persons, rulers, civil servants, as so on. Now, in your suggestion, does God pick the Romans to gain this knowledge, or not, and by that choice pick winners and losers?
“World War II ended, by some assessments, due to the unleashing of the atomic bomb? Does God become complicit in that act by forwarding information on its design?
“Look, you, we, have just attempted to resolve the tension of God verses evil and suffering through interventions by God or by adjustment of the universe’s attributes. But each of those attempts triggered other ramifications. Relieving pain threatened the mechanisms of life. Removing the constancy of the universe required God to select who receives information and when.
“Take another example death. Death brings pain, remorse and suffering. Let’s banish death. But without death, we bring stasis, we cutoff rebirth and growth, we stunt progress and development. Mammals arose, in part, due to the extinction of dinosaurs. Modern anthropology now supports that many human species died out or evolved to generate our current species. Take something apparently simple, a forest. Could a forest even be a forest, even exist, without death and rebirth, the cycle of life.
“So the progression of the totality of life requires the death of individual lives.
Sage: Such trade-offs may nor may not exist, but the level of suffering in our universe rises so high that I judge God could have created a much better optimum.
Scholar: “I will continue with the example of the fawn, or rather deer in general. During their lives, deer forage for food, procreate, females nurture their young, males seek territory, and so on. Deer have respectable defenses against predators, in their speed, camouflage, jumping ability and so on. For most of their lives, deer do not suffer. Then in the course of things they die, of exposure, diseases, predation, starvation, and so on, suffering days, maybe weeks. While the fawn died early, on average a deer lives several years.
Sage: “Your point.
Scholar: “The balance of non-suffering to suffering for animals stands decidedly on the side of non-suffering. I judge we severely underestimate the ubiquity of pleasures and the value of our universe.
Sage: “You so judge, but that stands as just that a judgment.
Scholar: “Similarly, you judge God could have optimized better. That too stands as just that a judgment.
Sage: “We thus reach an impasse?
Scholar: “Possibly, but that would accomplish much. What appears as an perplexing quandary of God and evil transforms into a significant and involved question of the metaphysics of the universe.
“May I present another set of opposing attributes.
Scholar: “Freedom and evil. If individuals possess an actual form of freedom, then that freedom implies possible moral evil.
Sage: “Are you arguing humanity’s sinfulness causes evil and suffering.
Scholar: Sin offers one route of explanation, but a theistic route. We seek here, as agreed, to not evoke predominantly religious rationales.
“I will simply argue that the brain as understood through science, and free will as we experience it, allows a range of human actions that include those we philosophically label morally evil.
Sage: “Okay. Note I grant the assumption that mankind possesses free will. Many disagree we enjoy such a free will, or that such is even possible.
Scholar: “Understood. Now, granting free will, would you agree free will provides value. To choose one’s course, to aspire and then undertake great efforts, to strive for a noble character, we inherently judge such freedom as a great attribute. And the freedom to achieve greatness, to find meaning, includes a freedom to fail, to give in to weakness, to perform immorality.
Sage: “Here I will object, specifically to your last statement. Free will does not automatically imply performing evil. A God could allow free will for positive moral actions, but prevent negative acts of crime, war, and so on.
Scholar: “How does that work? So God would prevent my pushing someone down the stairs, but allow me not to help if someone fell accidentally? God would prevent my starting an arson fire, but allow me to not put up a ladder for a mother and child to flee a fire?”
“I offer that omission blurs into commission, with no clear division. Thus, to prevent moral evil requires restricting free will in ever increasing degrees. So again we find attributes in tension, freedom and moral evil.
Sage: “Possibly. But let me return to your core hypothesis, that in actuality limitation exists to maximizing good and value. Your argue I can not show a design of our universe, within those limitations, that produces more value. I will argue back that, on its face, so much evil and suffering exists, that while God may be limited in an actuality, such a God could do better. So much evil and suffering appears unconnected and unnecessary, not tied to any value.
Scholar: “Let me then move to the second prong that of paths, of connected sequences of causal events.
Sage: “Certainly. Begin.
Scholar: “To start, image you can pick between four different ways to get to work. Imagine you could go by car, by bus, by subway or by commuter train.
Sage: “Okay, actually possible in major world cities.
Scholar: “Now once you start along one option, you are fairly committed. If you board the commuter train, but signal problems arise, halting movement, you are fairly stuck on the train.
Sage: “Very much so. However, the point?
Scholar: “The point is this. In our actuality, events follow in a linked sequence. In our example, once you select to travel by commuter train, you are constrained to a connected chain of events originating in your selection. The nature of our actuality, of time and space, prevent one jumping to a disconnected trajectory. Once on the commuter train, you can not suddenly reappear on a subway.
Sage: “Good enough. Can you tie this to evil and suffering?
Scholar: “Certainly. Take our commuting example. Once one selects a mode of transportation, one selects the good and the bad of that mode. The commuter train offers a smoother ride and better seats, but unlike say the bus, which if stuck can discharge its passengers, the commuter train, unless halted right at a platform, can not. And unlike the subway, which arrives every several minutes, the train leaves only once an hour, not to mention a fare a good bit higher than the subway or bus..
“The benefits and drawbacks of the commuter train arrive as a package.
“One can not mix and match. One cannot have the door-to-door convenience of a car, the quiet and comfort of the commuter train, the frequent schedule of the subway and the ability to get off the bus if stuck.
Sage: “The nuisances of commuting hardly compare to the evil and suffering of our world.
Scholar: “Commuting serves as an example. Consider something very basic, Steel. Why steel. Steel arises from the basic nature of our actuality, from the basic laws of physics and chemistry and materials. From those laws extend causal sequences of events and capabilities, including the presence of iron ore and our ability to mine it and convert it to steel.
Sage: “Okay, but where is the value linked with evil and suffering?
Scholar: “The value is obvious with a moments reflections. Modern society would simply not exist absent steel. No skyscrapers, no automobiles, no railroads, no appliances, and on and on. Behind the scenes no machines that manufacture, mine and process our clothes, fuel and food; no reinforced concrete for our buildings and bridges; no cables and pipes for our electricity, water, gas, and sewers.
“The designer of the universe enabled a truly fantastic material with exquisite properties.
“But… steel also enables guns, bullets, bombs, war planes, tanks, missiles, battleships, in other words all the efficient means of killing in crime, conflict and war.
“The trajectory emanating from iron and steel brought a joined package of good and evil. The value linked with the suffering.
Sage: “Steel doesn’t kill, humanity does.
Scholar: “Okay, I will get to that. But combustion and metabolism, rather important energy creators, work due to the reactivity of oxygen. That same oxygen, however, causes steel to rust, fires to destroy, carbon dioxide to form and build up into global warming. So oxygen brings good and bad, joined.
“But back to humanity. The basic laws of biology enabled the brain. That brain produces our wondrous experiences, our deep consciousness and our enormous intellect. That brain enables our imagination, powers our exploration, and drives us to achieve.
“But that same biology produced a brain that, understandably, desires self-preservation and security. The same biology that spurs imagination, exploration and achievement also spurs megalomania, conquest and domination. With those desires, the brain, when combined with freedom, let’s not forget the value of our freedom, triggers us at times to use the implements of steel to wage war and crime.
“So the trajectories that originate from the basic attributes of our biology, with our brain a result of one of those causal trajectories, bring with them, as a joined, inseparable package, enormous value, but also evil and suffering.
“I can site other examples. Nitrogen and carbon enable life itself, but also enable explosives. Rain brings water for our use and for our farms, but also spawns thunderstorms and floods. Our Earth’s interior geology enables Earth magnetic field, shielding our planet, but that same geology brings volcanoes and earthquakes.
Sage: “You do not argue that evil and suffering must accompany good. Rather you argue that God lacks design skills.
Scholar: “Remember our earlier discussion of the values in the universe, and your response that the mother with the sick child cares not about them. But the grand values of the universe and the personal concern of the mother connect. The value in the universe enabled the planet on which the mother resides, the life she and her child enjoy, the sun and water that generate food, the metals and minerals at the basis of modern society, and most directly, the sentience with which the mother cherishes the smile of the child, the science enabling the doctor to cure, and the altruism which allows society and the doctor to care.
I thus offer that God possess extraordinary design skills. I further argue, and have argued, that given the interconnectedness of our actuality, apparent straightforward changes to relieve evil and suffering, including changes in the attributes of the universe and interventions by God, trigger corresponding and offsetting problems.
Sage: “What about war? Certainly the suffering saved by a divine intervention to stop the most horrific of wars would outweigh any benefits lost or evils generated?
Scholar: “Yes, war. How can a God allow war? It seems just a few targeted interventions by God would have stopped untold deaths, injuries, sufferings, atrocities.
Sage: “Without unraveling mankind’s ability to discern the world. Change the mind of Hitler, or at most a dozen top leaders, and World War II doesn’t happen.
Scholar: “It seems simple enough, but then I have doubts. Would God achieve ultimate success? Sure, stop a few top leaders, and World War II does not happen. But that would not relieve the tensions within Germany and with its neighbors. Nor would it stop the rise of nuclear weapons. Nor future tyrants. Nor future oppressed populations. And so on.
“No, intervention to stop World War II would not simply eliminate that war and leave all else in history the same. Rather, an intervention would put the world on a different path, one possibly with more and greater wars. So God would need to intervene constantly.
Sage: “If God’s interventions would simply switch humanity to a different trajectory, with no net benefit, why did Christ come?
Scholar: “Do not extrapolate that all interventions produce no net benefit. In stopping one war, or stopping one earthquake, God would move the trajectory of our actuality as if switching a train to a different track. Christ came to move the tracks themselves, and to do so through a simple lifestyle, ethical teaching, moral guidance, and inspirational leadership, not to mention submitting to death by crucifixion.
Sage: “So you do allow that God could and would intervene?
Scholar: “Certainly. God could perform singular miracles not necessarily to relieve an instance of evil and suffering but to provide an inspirational sign. To those sufficiently open, God could upon request strengthen the mind and build the resolve of willing believers.
Sage: “I remain skeptical. On balance, given God optimized our universe, why actualize it. Our universe, even optimized, doesn’t pass a threshold of value verses evil and suffering.
Scholar: “Let me add a perspective on that. We can reasonably speculate that much value remains to come.
“To start, we agree that parents let children stumble, even get bruised, even get emotionally distressed, to stimulate growth.
Sage: “Yes. But crime and natural disaster and war deliver way more suffering than needed for individuals to grow.
Scholar: “But consider humanity as a whole. If we have before us the traditional God, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, such a God exceeds not just any individual, but the totality of humanity, more than an adult exceeds a child. And does so in many respects, i.e. in wisdom, in power, in duration, in benevolence.
“If adults let children stumble to kindle growth, God would almost certainly let humanity, as a collective entity, stumble to improve. I have argued that the level of pleasure, joy, and grandeur of our actuality, that the total of the past and present value, exceeds in great degree the level of evil and suffering. I now argue that the evil and suffering have future value and purpose, to propel mankind to improve, to collectively reach immense heights.
Sage: “Let’s see. Allow millions and millions of deaths, suffering of unimaginable amounts, to propel mankind forward. Parents let children stumble, not fall off cliffs and suffer multiple fractures, internal hemorrhaging and permanent disfigurement.
Scholar: “Nice rhetoric, but I have argued the value of our current situation outweighs our evil and suffering. Propelling mankind forward adds to the value proposition. And consider one example. As our technology develops, could we in future centuries and millennium develop a collective conscious? Your desires become mine, a mother feels directly the joy of the child, and a criminal feels the pain and horror of the victim.
Sage: “Dream as you wish. From my view, you have stitched together a disparate collection of propositions and reasons. The seams of your stitching do not hold under scrutiny.
Scholar: “Ahh, you say stitch, I would offer weave, I have weaved a strong fabric.
“My fabric carries the issue of evil and suffering beyond incredulous bafflement about how God could allow such, to the complex metaphysical and theistic issue of maximizing value in a tangible, real, time/space actuality.
Sage: “And I say a kind God would have created better.