One of the striking things about the tsunami coverage here in Melbourne has been how much of it has focussed on religion. The recent op-eds in The Age have been full of people arguing about how, or whether, religious views can accommodate tragedies such as we’ve seen in south Asia. Since I’ll be teaching the Problem of Evil as part of philosophy 101 this spring (using God, Freedom and Evil as the primary text), I’ve been following these discussions with some interest. I was surprised to find one of the responses I always dismissed as absurd actually has a little more bite to it when I actually tried thinking about it.
It’s worth noting that there is only a theological problem here for a special kind of theist. Believers in Greek-style polytheism don’t have a problem. Nor do believers whose God is morally pretty good, but not altgether perfect. Maybe a God like that well-intentioned colleague who is sometimes a bit forgetful. And there isn’t a problem for those who don’t believe in an omnipotent God, as apparently some prominent theists do not. But if your God is all-powerful and all-loving, there’s a prima facie problem.
One could try, as Bishop Phillip Jensen apparently did to say that it’s all part of God’s warning. But there are plenty of problems with that. Voltaire’s criticism of a similar move after Lisbon (there are plenty of worse sinners in Paris) seems on the money. And like earth to God, next time you want to send a message, try skywriting. It’s cheap, especially for you, it’s visible, and if there isn’t a plane involved, everyone will notice. During the cricket this week Peter Roebuck was having some fun gently mocking this line, saying something like “Hmmm so we’re meant to think God was sitting around and decided, I know, what we need now is a giant tidal wave that kills a couple of hundred thousand people. I think they’ll have to do better than that.” It could have been a fun discussion but the other commentator seemed a little nervous to be talking about anything more controversial than Yousuf Youhana’s field placings so it got cut off, but Roebuck was correct.
I think there’s a relatively straightforward solution to the Problem of Evil, the modal realism solution due to Donald Turner and Hud Hudson. I also think that the no best world solution is pretty good. To be sure both of these solutions have metaphysical oddities about them, but I think they are both perfectly fine solutions to the theological problems. So I’m mostly interested in mapping out the logical space here rather than trying to work out if there’s a knock-down argument against theism, which I’m pretty sure there isn’t.
But what I most wanted to write about was the response by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.
The extraordinary fact is that belief has survived such tests again and again not because it comforts or explains but because believers cannot deny what has been shown or given to them. They have learned to see the world and life in the world as a freely given gift; they have learned to be open to a calling or invitation from outside their own resources, a calling to accept God’s mercy for themselves and make it real for others; they have learned that there is some reality to which they can only relate in amazement and silence. These convictions are terribly assaulted by all those other facts of human experience that seem to point to a completely arbitrary world, but people still feel bound to them, not for comfort or ease, but because they have imposed themselves on the shape of a life and the habits of a heart.
In the past I always thought this was just a cop-out, akin to refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, or refuting the sceptic by holding up one’s hands. Then I realised, I support refuting Berkeley by kicking a stone, or refuting the sceptic by holding up one’s hands, so maybe I better look into this more closely!
Put in terms we analytic philosophers would be more comfortable with, the argument might go as follows. It’s a familiar fact that when faced with a valid argument, one always has a choice between believing the conclusion and rejecting one or more of the premises. It’s also a familiar point that given how fragile philosophical reasoning can be, if we have a choice between accepting a philosophical claim and accepting some claim that we’ve received from a more secure evidentiary source, e.g. perception, common sense, gossip, reading tea leaves etc, the right thing to do is reject the philosophical claim. And that’s the right thing to do even if we don’t know why the philosophical claim is false. The upshot of this is that given a tricky philosophical argument for a claim that conflicts with something we know from a secure evidentiary source, and all kidding aside perception is basically a secure source, we should reject the philosophical argument.
Williams, if I’ve read him correctly, is arguing that believers can simply perceive God’s existence. Now this is not much use as an argument for God’s existence, since it is pretty blatantly question-begging, but there’s no such thing as begging-the-question when offering defences of your own view against alleged refutations. So I’m inclined to grant, or at least assume for the sake of argument, that (some) believers do have perceptual knowledge of God’s existence. Does this defeat the problem of evil?
I think not, as a close inspection of the parallels with Moorean common sense arguments shows. (I’m indebted over the next little bit to various conversations with Bill Lycan.) Moore wanted to defend common sense against philosophical attacks, such as McTaggert’s argument for the unreality of time, or the sceptic’s claim that he could not know of the existence of an external world. The trick was to (a) show that the philosopher’s conclusion entailed the opposite of some common sense claim (in McTaggert’s case this was “That I had breakfast today before I had lunch”) and (b) argue that the common sense claim was more plausible than some of the philosophical claim (in McTaggert’s case again “Temporal modes such as pastness and futurity are monadic properties of events.”). Both steps are going to be problematic for someone trying to offer a novel response to the Problem of Evil along Williams’s lines.
I won’t stress too much the problems with (b) here, but the rough idea is that the premises of the atheists Problem of Evil argument are hardly technical philosophical ideas. If they were, the problem wouldn’t get into the newspapers with quite the frequency it does. If anything, it’s the premises here that are common sense, though good philosophers (e.g. Plantinga) have noted that it is hard to get a rigorous statement of them. So the atheist doesn’t look like McTaggert or the sceptic to start.
The bigger problem is that the atheist’s conclusion here is nowhere near as radical as the conclusions Moore rejected, and they need not lead to the rejection of anything genuinely perceptual or common sensical. Remember the theological views I said at the top weren’t threatened by the tragedy, some of which were clearly theistic views. It’s consistent with the perceptions of God, at least as Archbishop Williams describes them, that they are perceptions of a less than all-loving, or a less than all-powerful, God. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how they could be perceptions of such a God, since these don’t seem to be observational properties.
Here’s an analogy to try and back that up. Imagine a debate between a common sense person Con, and a scientist Sci. Sci tries to argue that given what we know about subatomic physics, and how subatomic things tend to be widely separated, there are no solid objects. If Con responds by kicking a stone and saying “Look, that’s solid”, he’s given a perfectly sound defence of his view that there are solid objects, because he can see and feel (and hence perceptually know) that there are solid objects. Now imagine Sci does not argue with Con, but with Con’s radically common sensical cousin Rad, who thinks there are perfectly solid objects, where a perfect solid has material at every point in its interior. Sci points out that the assumption of perfect solidity is inconsistent with scientific theories. Rad responds by kicking a stone and saying “Look, that’s perfectly solid.” This response fails for multiple reasons. First, of course, it isn’t perfectly solid. Second, even if (per impossible) it was perfectly solid, this isn’t the kind of thing we could detect by simple observation, so Rad couldn’t know that it was perfectly solid.
I think the theist who responds to the Problem of Evil by appeal to their perception (or innate feeling or whatever) of God is in Rad’s position, not Con’s. It is arguable, and nothing in the Problem of Evil tells against it, that someone could perceive God’s existence. But they couldn’t simply perceive these superlative properties of God, because these are not available to simple inspection. (They might believe them for all other sorts of reasons, as we believe that stones are not perfectly solid for reasons that go beyond simple perception.) In general really we can’t simply perceive superlative properties – we can see that someone is tall, but have to infer from all sorts of facts that they are the tallest man in Britain. Hence the believer can’t just see that the conclusion of the Problem of Evil is false. But saying they can is not as bizarre, nor as non-responsive, as I always thought, so I’m rather glad Archbishop Williams wrote this piece. And I’m very glad that Australia is the kind of place where these kinds of debates can take place in public sphere, with something akin to arguments rather than name-calling being offered on both sides.