Posts Tagged 'debate'

Paul Draper and the Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil has been doing the rounds lately, so I thought I’d attempt a fresh perspective.

If you’re not familiar with it already, the Problem of Evil in its most simplistic form can be summarised like this:

  1. If a perfectly good God exists, there would be no evil in the world.
  2. There is evil in the world.
  3. Therefore, God does not exist

For obvious reasons, that doesn’t make for a very convincing argument. The first premise is weak (as is the second to a lesser extent), and leaves itself wide open to attack from any intelligent theist. There have been all sorts of refinements to this argumnt over the years, but my favourite appears in Pain and Pleasure: An Evidential Problem for Theists by the American philosopher Paul Draper (you can find it on JSTOR if you have access). I’ll attempt to give a brief summary of his argument, which, keep in mind, is a good deal more complex and far more thorough than what I’m presenting here.

If we observe the natural world, we see that both pain and pleasure play an important role in ‘goal-directed organic systems’ (living organisms, for simplicity’s sake). Both of these phenomena are biologically useful in different ways; if you place your hand into a fire, for example, the pain you experience will immediately cause you to withdraw your hand and avoid placing it too close to a fire again. Keep in mind that being ‘goal-directed’ here does not imply the ability to make conscious decisions or the posession of human level intelligence, and we can say that pain or pleasure is biologically useful as long as it helps an organism fulfill its biological goals (survival and reproduction).

Now consider two competing hypotheses – theism (belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God) and the Hypothesis of Indifference (or ‘HI’ – the belief that, in Draper’s words, “neither the nature nor the condition of sentient beings on earth is the result of benevolent or malevolent actions performed by non- human persons”).

We observe that humans are sentient, moral agents that are composed of parts which contribute to our biological goals. On this observation, we can expect that human pain and pleasure should also contribute to our biological goals (or else we would not have evolved to be capable of experiencing them) – and this is exactly what the evidence indicates. However, Draper argues that pain and pleasure are unlike other parts of organic systems, in that they have intrinsic value – bad in the case of pain, good in the case of pleasure. Presumably, an all-loving God would have reasons for producing pleasure apart from our biological goals, and would similarly want to create goal-oriented organic systems that could function without the necessity of experiencing pain.

The important distinction here is morality. Under HI, organic systems are created by entirely non-conscious, non-moral processes, and so no moral consideration is behind their experiencing pain and pleasure. But under theism, God, being both a moral agent and omnipotent, would want to and be capable of creating biological systems without biologically useful pain or pleasure. While God could have moral reasons for producing pain and pleasure, the fact that both are consistently biologically useful suggests HI more strongly than theism.

Of course, one immediate response to this is that humans in particular may require the experience of pain in order to develop as moral agents. However, as Draper points out, non-moral, conscious beingsĀ  (other animals) also experience biologically useful pain and pleasure, and in their case it cannot be for the purpose of moral development. Thus, HI again becomes more probable than theism.

The first thing to note here is that this is a probabilistic argument, in that it attempts to show that HI is more likely than theism, not that HI is definitely true. It also only considers two opposing hypotheses, leaving it open to accusations of creating a fale dichotomy. Finally, it could be vulnerable to one of the theodicies, in particular the ‘free will’ theodicy. On balance, however, I feel that HI more accurately describes the world (and in particular our experiences of pain and pleasure) than any form of theism.

I’ll also briefly mention William Rowe, an atheist philosopher who has argued that the existence of ‘gratuitous evils’ (evils that do not cause any obvious counterbalancing goods) suggest that God does not exist. His most famous example of a GE is a fawn burning to death in a forest fire, an event which has no doubt occurred many times since fawns first appeared. These GEs do not appear to be for the purpose of moral development (or ‘soul-building’, as I believe John Hick has called it), seeming to contradict the idea of an omnipotent, all-loving God.

Anyway, let me know what you think in the comments section!