Monday, January 03, 2005

Natural Evil and Fallen Angels

Keith Burgess-Jackson writes:

I have a question for my theistic readers. How do you reconcile the devastation wrought by the tsunami with your belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent being? If God could have prevented the tsunami but didn’t, then God’s omnibenevolence is called into question. If God wanted to prevent the tsunami but couldn’t, then God’s omniscience or omnipotence is called into question. You can’t explain away the evil by citing free will, for no human being brought about the tsunami. (Surely you don’t believe in fallen angels.) Do events like this shake your faith? If not, why not? If death and destruction on this scale don’t make you doubt the existence of your god, what would?

1. The parenthetical material is puzzling. If someone can see his way clear to accepting the existence of a purely spiritual being, then the belief in angels, fallen or otherwise, will present no special problem. Given the existence of fallen angels, the Free Will Defense may be invoked to account for natural evils such as tsunamis: natural evils turn out to be a species of moral evils.

2. Of course, the argument can be turned around. If someone argues from the fact of evil to the nonexistence of God, that person assumes that there is indeed an objective fact of evil, and thus, an objective distinction between good and evil. A sophisticated theist can counterargue that there cannot be an objective distinction between good and evil unless God exists. I could make that argument as rigorous as you like. That is not to say that the argument would be compelling to every rational consumer of it, but only that it would logically impeccable, plausibly premised, and sufficiently strong to neutralize the atheist's argument from evil. I distinguish between refuting and neutralizing. It may be difficult to refute a sophisticated interlocutor since he will not be likely to blunder. But he can be neutralized by presenting counterarguments of equal but opposite probative force. The result is a stand-off: you battle the opponent to a draw.

3. In a separate argument, a theist could make the case that the very malevolence of the moral evil in the world -- think of the 20th century and the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, the 100 million murdered by Communists, etc.) -- cannot be explained naturalistically. This would be another way to argue from the fact of objective evil to supernatural agents of evil.

4. There is no denying that evil presents a serious challenge to theism. Should it shake the theist's faith? Only if the objections to atheism/naturalism shake the atheist's/naturalist's faith. We seem to have doxastic parity. There are reasons both for and against theism. But there are reasons both for and against atheism/naturalism. It would be special pleading to suppose that the reasons against theism are much more weighty that the reasons against atheism/naturalism. See my
companion post on the naturalist's version of fides quaerens intellectum.

5. At the end of the day, after all the dialectical smoke has cleared, you simply have to decide what you are going to believe and how you are going to live. The decision is not a mere decision, but rationally informed, and subject to revision after the consideration of further arguments; but at some point ratiocination must cease and a position must be taken.

Note: Most atheists are naturalists, hence my conflation of them in this post. But one could be an anti-naturalist and an atheist (McTaggart) and I suppose one could be a theist and a naturalist.