This is a transcript of the debate between William Lane Craig and A.C. Grayling held at the Oxford Union in 2005. The motion was “Belief in God Makes Sense in Light of Tsunamis”.
This is a transcript from the audio recording of the above debate. All punctuation, with the exception of “[...]”s, represents speech patterns. For example, italics and underlines for emphasis, hyphenates indicating a divergent thought, brackets indicating an aside, ellipsis indicating a suspended or incomplete sentence.
Full speeches (with the exception of just one recording break) are transcribed, though the moderator’s speeches (Roger Preece) have been truncated or omitted apart from his involvement in the Q&A session.
Recording quality varied (especially for Grayling’s microphone) and a few moments are inaudible, usually only spanning a word or, at most, a short sentence. In some cases, an 'educated guess' has been offered. Anybody with a finer ear, who can make out the inaudible moments from the recording, is encouraged to submit amendments!
Opening Statement – William Lane Craig
Opening Statement – A.C. Grayling
Rebuttal – William Lane Craig
Rebuttal – A.C. Grayling
Question, Answer and Discussion Period
Closing Statement – William Lane Craig
Closing Statement – A.C. Grayling
Thank you and good evening. I’m very grateful to the Oxford Union for the privilege of debating here this evening on this most important topic and I thank you for your warm welcome. I’m also grateful as well for Professor Grayling’s participation in the event this evening, and I trust that our discussion tonight will not only be an intellectual exercise for you but will also be a significant help in your own personal, spiritual journey.
Now when we ask whether belief in God makes sense in light of tsunamis, we’re posing in a provocative way the problem that, traditionally, philosophers have called ‘the problem of evil’. This problem is undoubtedly the greatest obstacle to belief in God. When we consider the depth and the extent of suffering in the world then it makes it hard to believe in God. Maybe we should just all become atheists.
But that would be a pretty big step to take. How can we be sure that God does not exist? Maybe there’s a reason why God permits all the suffering in the world. Maybe it all fits in to some ‘grand scheme of things’ that we can only dimly envision, if at all. How do we know?
Well, despite the undeniable emotional impact of the problem of evil, I’m persuaded that – as a strictly rational, intellectual problem – it does not constitute a disproof of the existence of God. Let me explain why.
Traditionally, atheists have claimed that the co-existence of God and evil is logically impossible. That is to say, there is no possible world in which God and evil both exist. Since we know that evil exists, the argument goes, it follows logically that God does not exist. It is this version of the problem of evil that professor Grayling recently defended in his debate with Keith Ward in The Prospect.
So, according to the logical version of the problem of evil, (the two statements on your hand-out):
(A) an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God exists
(B) evil exists
... are logically incompatible.
The difficulty for the atheist, however, is that statements (A) and (B) are not, at face value, logically inconsistent. There’s no explicit contradiction between them. If the atheist thinks they are implicitly contradictory then he must be assuming some hidden premises that would serve to bring out the contradiction and make it explicit.
But, what are those premises? Well, the atheist seems to be assuming two things:
(1) If God is omnipotent then he can create any world that he desires
(2) If God is omnibenevolent then he prefers a world without evil over a world with evil
The atheist reasons that: since God is omnipotent he could create a world without evil, and since he is omnibenevolent he would prefer a world without evil, therefore if God exists, evil cannot exist.
This version of the problem of evil has been seriously undermined by the incisive critique of the philosopher Alvin Plantinga. Plantinga notes that the atheist must show that both of the critical assumptions (1) and (2) are necessarily true in order for the argument to be logically valid. But, Plantinga argues, if it is even possible that human beings have free will then (1) and (2) are not necessarily true.
Take assumption (1). If free will is possible then it’s false that an omnipotent God can create just any world that he desires. God’s being omnipotent does not imply that he can do logical impossibilities (such as, make a round square or a married bachelor). But it is logically impossible to make someone freely choose to do something. Thus if God grants people genuine freedom, to choose as they like, then it’s impossible for him to determine what their choices will be. All he can do is create the circumstances, in which a person is able to make a free choice, and then – so to speak – ‘stand back’ and let him make that choice. Now what this implies is that there are worlds which are possible, in and of themselves, but which God is incapable of creating. Philosophers say that such worlds are not feasible for God. So the first assumption made by the atheist, (namely, that an omnipotent God can create any world that he desires), is not necessarily true.
Now this is important because, for all we know, in every feasible world – where God creates free creatures – some of those creatures freely choose to do evil. Thus it’s possible that every world feasible for God, which contains free creatures, is a world with sin and evil. And, therefore, the atheist’s argument – on this ground alone – is invalid.
But what about the second assumption? That ‘if God is omnibenevolent then he prefers a world without evil over a world with evil’? Again, such an assumption is not necessarily true. The fact is that in many cases we allow suffering to occur, in a person’s life, because we have some morally sufficient reason for permitting it. I’m reminded of a remark once made by C.S. Lewis: “What do people mean when they say ‘I’m not afraid of God because I know that he is good’? Have they never even been to the dentist?”! [some audience laughter] God may permit suffering in our lives in order to achieve some morally sufficient, overriding, end. Thus, even though God is omnibenevolent, he might well have morally sufficient reasons for permitting pain and suffering in the world. Consequently, the second assumption – of our atheist friends – is also not necessarily true. The argument is, thus, doubly invalid.
The bottom line is that atheists have not been able to show that either of their key assumptions is necessarily true, which they must do in order to sustain the claim, that the co-existence of God and evil is logically impossible. The atheist who makes this claim has unwittingly shouldered a tremendously heavy burden of proof which no-one has been able to sustain.
Now, Plantinga argues that we can go even further than this. Not only has the atheist failed to prove that God and evil are inconsistent, but we can – on the contrary – prove that God and evil are consistent! In order to do so, all we have to do is provide some proposition that is compatible with God’s existence and which entails that evil exists. And the following is such a proposition (on your hand-outs):
(C) God could not have created a world that had so much good as the actual world but had less evil, both in terms of quantity and quality, and – moreover – God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil that exists.
So long as this proposition is even possible, it shows that God and the evil in the world are logically compatible.
In summary, the atheist who champions the logical version of the problem of evil, bears the burden of proof to show that there is no possible world in which (A) and (B) are true. That is an enormously heavy burden which has proved to be unsustainable. After centuries of discussion, contemporary philosophers including virtually all atheists and agnostics have come to admit that the logical problem of evil has been solved. In the words of the prominent philosopher William Alston, “It is now acknowledged, on almost all sides, that the logical argument from evil is bankrupt.”
Now perhaps Professor Grayling would retreat, at this point, to the position that ‘while the co-existence of God and evil are logically possible, nonetheless, it’s highly improbable“’ So, given the evil in the world, it’s improbable that God exists.
This probabilistic version of the problem, however, faces insuperable difficulties. Let me just mention three, this evening:
Number one: we’re not in a position to assess, inductively, the probability that God lacks morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evils that occur. The atheist seems to think that if God has morally sufficient reasons, for permitting the evils that occur, then these reasons should be obvious to us!
But, there’s absolutely no grounds for that assumption. The transcendent God sees the end of history from its beginning and providentially orders history so that his purposes are ultimately achieved through human, free decisions. In order to achieve his ends, God may well have to put up with various evils along the way. Evils, which appear pointless or unnecessary – to us, within our limited frame of reference – may be seen to have been justly permitted within God’s wider frame of reference. We simply have no idea of the natural and moral evils that might be involved in order for God to arrange the circumstances, and free agents in them, necessary to some intended purpose; nor can we always discern the reasons why such a provident God might have for permitting some evil to enter our lives.
To say this, is not – is not – to appeal to mystery, but rather to point to the inherent cognitive limitations that frustrate attempts to say, on inductive grounds, that it’s improbable that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting some particular evil.
Ironically, in other contexts, atheists recognize these cognitive limitations. One of the most damaging objections to utilitarian ethical theory, which says that ‘we should always act so as to maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’, is that it is quite simply impossible for us to estimate which action we might perform will ultimately lead to the greatest amount of happiness in the world. Because of our cognitive limitations, actions which appear disastrous, in the short term, may redound to the greatest good; while some short term boon may prove to issue in untold misery. Once we contemplate God’s providence, over the whole of history, then it becomes evident how hopeless it is for limited observers to speculate on the probability of God’s having morally sufficient reasons for the evils that we see. We’re simply not in a good position to assess such probabilities with any confidence.
Secondly: Christian theism entails doctrines that increase the probability of the co-existence of God and evil. The atheist maintains that if God exists then it’s improbable that the world would contain the evil it does. But if the biblical God exists then it’s not, in fact, so surprising that evil exists. Thus, evil is not so improbable on Christian theism. For, according to Christian theism, the chief purpose of life is not happiness but, rather, the knowledge of God.
One reason the problem of evil seems so difficult is that people naturally tend to assume that if God exists then his purpose, for human life, is happiness – in this life! God’s role is to provide a comfortable environment for his human ‘pets’.
But, on the Christian view, this is false! We are not God’s pets, and the goal of human life is not happiness, per se, but rather the knowledge of God – which, in the end, will bring true and everlasting human fulfillment. Many evils occur in life which may be utterly pointless, with respect to the goal of producing human happiness, but they may not be pointless with respect to producing a deeper knowledge of God. Because God’s ultimate goal for humanity is the knowledge of himself, which alone can bring eternal happiness to people, history cannot be seen in its true perspective apart from considerations pertinent to the kingdom of God. It may well be the case that natural and moral evils are part of the means God uses to draw people into his eternal kingdom.
Moreover, God’s purpose is not restricted to this life but spills over, beyond the grave, into eternal life. When God asks his children to bear horrible suffering in this life, it is only with the prospect of a heavenly joy and recompense that is beyond all comprehension. And the longer we spend in eternity, the more the sufferings of this life shrink, by comparison, to an infinitesimal moment. The person in heaven looking back would say, no matter how awful his pain, no matter what he suffered, “I would go through it a million, million times over to know this joy”! Thus, if Christian theism is true, the existence of evil is not so improbable.
Number three: relative to the full scope of the evidence, God’s existence is probable. Probabilities are relative to one’s background information. Thus, with a probability argument, we always need to ask, “improbable with respect to what”? Now, apply this principle to the probabilistic problem of evil: the atheist says “God’s existence is improbable...”, but with respect to what? To the evil in the world? Well, if that’s all you consider, for your background information, then I think it’s hardly surprising that God’s existence would appear improbable relative to that alone. But that’s not the interesting question.
The interesting question is whether God’s existence is improbable relative to the full scope of the evidence. And the Christian theist will insist that we consider not just the evil in the world, but rather all the evidence relevant to God’s existence.
Now, obviously, I don’t have time to discuss it here but, in my published work, I’ve written extensively in defense of various arguments for the existence of God. I’m convinced that even given any improbability that evil throws upon God’s existence, God’s existence is still quite probable on the basis of the evidence. In any case, it would be premature to conclude that God’s existence is improbable unless one has examined and weighed all the relevant evidence.
In conclusion, then, neither the logical nor the probabilistic problem of evil constitutes a justification of atheism. The rational man is well within his rights in thinking that the existence of God makes sense. Even in light of tsunamis.
[Applause] [Back to Top]
Before we began our debate I said to Professor Craig that I was prepared to concede victory this evening, to him, in the matter of ties. He’s got a much more handsome tie than I’ve got on [audience laughter]. I wore this one because as the, as the token, or what a theist would call an ‘atheist’ – because I also don’t believe in fairies and so on, I prefer to be an ‘afairy-ist’ – I thought I’d better wear a sort of fairly sober tie on, in order to appear to be a bit more respectable and [inaudible, then slight audience laughter].
I’m tremendously impressed, by the way, at the number of you present here on a Friday evening, in Oxford! I think things must have changed since I was an undergraduate here [audience laughter] – there must be fewer facilities. But at any rate I’m delighted to see you all.
Let me just begin with a remark about the tsunami which, as you know, killed several hundred thousand people – among them small children and elderly people – a great majority of them were not Christians – they were people of other faiths and all faiths – I suppose – and of no faith. So that I suppose one would need an assumption to the effect that the, that the deity, if he – she or it – caused it or countenanced it or wasn’t able to stop it, nevertheless it would have – in some sense – to be the same deity for all those people, and if there is a greater good envisaged in the event then it would have to be one that is somehow captured in very different forms in these different faiths.
And I leave that point hanging in the air because I think it’s something that we need to bring up a bit later on – remembering that there was a competition between the faiths! After all, a Christian will tell you that the founder of that religion said “I am the way, the truth and the life, no-one comes to the Father but by me”, which seems rather bad news for very many of the people who were swept away by that grave wave.
Still, let’s begin at the beginning:
We have to wade our way through a number of, ‘if’s before we get to the point that we need to discuss tonight: if there are supernatural entities or phenomena in the universe, and by that I mean things that don’t fall into the category of frogs and clouds and galaxies and human beings and so on – subject to description in terms of natural laws and the rest – so if there are supernatural entities or phenomena in the universe, and if these supernatural phenomena are in some way active – If they, if they’re ‘agents’ – and let’s just, for grammatical simplicity, talk in terms of one such thing, call it (X) for the moment; if (X) is an agent – that is, can do things and in some way, react to the facts in the universe – and if, further, that supernatural entity is not merely an agent but also an intelligent one – has intelligence – and if, yet again it’s not merely intelligent but also interested in this bit of the universe with we, people, in it; then we need to ask ourselves the question, “What, if anything, can be inferred about the nature of, such an entity (if we allow ourselves so many, ‘if’s) from the evidence that we have available to us?”
So if, if there’s a supernatural entity which is intelligent and interested in this bit of the universe, what can we say about what that entity might be like, on the basis of what the world seems like to us? And we’re remembering here that the evidence includes tsunamis and childhood cancers and things like that.
And the answer would have to be something like this: at first blush, at any rate – before the theologians get to work on us – it would seem that that ‘intelligent and interested agency’, in the universe, would have to be either malevolent or, if not impotent, then only quasi-potent.
Okay, so malevolent we could understand: the fact that the Old Testament is full of suggestions that if you were a Midianite or someone like that, then the deity might indeed be reasonably malevolent to, towards you.
So, but if not malevolent then, then not omnipotent, because ... constrained in some way in its power to lessen the suffering that is experienced by the creation with which it, to which it stands in some relation.
But the answer to that second point is to say “Well, maybe it is benevolent but its omnipotence is not exercised in a way that would ensure a reduction of the amount of suffering that there is, in the universe, because it has a purpose – a greater purpose that the suffering should, in some way, subserve.”
Now both those points were made by Professor Craig in his presentation and he was talking about the hidden assumptions made, by the person who doesn’t believe in fairies and so on, if, ‘(1) if God is omnipotent then he can create any world that he desires’ and he disputed that assumption – and that’s the point that I’ve just raised about quasi-potence or lack of potency – and the second one about God’s benevolence, that ‘if God is omnibenevolent he prefers a world in which evil doesn’t exist’, and he raised a point in connection with that too.
And you will notice that the points actually don’t sit quite consistently with one another because the answer, that he gave to the first point, is “so God is not quite omnipotent because there are some things that he can’t do”. For example, he can’t do logically impossible things – well, we know that already because he can’t eat himself for breakfast and that kind of thing – but what he also can’t do is to create a world which has free will in it (required, incidentally, so that we can answer problems about the existence of moral evil in the world – remembering that if there is a God who is a creator of the world, and is responsible ultimately for everything that happens in it, then he’s responsible for murder and rape and the rest of it – and so in order to block that consequence we have to think in terms of the creation – parts of the creation, anyway, that’s us – having free will). So he’s not quite omnipotent is the derogation from that point.
But, as for the omnibenevolence, well, he’s willing to let suffering occur in the world for a greater good. And that if only we could see sub specie aeternitatis what that greater good is, then no matter how great the suffering, say of grief, of loss, of terror, of being faced with an unkind or cruel nature – no matter what the experience of suffering might be – nevertheless it subserves some, some greater good. And we can’t see what that is because we have finite minds. Now, I just mention in passing, to leave to one side for discussion, the thought that invoking the finitude of our cognitive powers – our inability to see what that great good might be – is, as it seems to me, a very helpful and convenient argument for the theologian; because once one pulls the curtain of mystery across things then, of course, one can say and believe anything.
But the inconsistency between the two points is this: if you derogate somewhat from God’s omnipotence, then you’re in effect saying that he can’t – in a world which contains free will, agents and so on – he can’t have prevented the degree of suffering that is present in the world.
The second point: he’s, nevertheless, willing to let suffering occur for a greater good. So, if you think that suffering is necessary for a greater good, then – and you permit it to happen – then the implication seems to be that you could do something about not letting it happen, but since you’ve got this ‘greater good’ in mind, you, do let it happen.
So what one wants to say to the theologian is “Well, which do you want? Do you want him to be not quite omnipotent, or do you want for him to be omnipotent but willing to let suffering happen so that the greater good can be achieved? Which of those two things do you want?”
Now, [sigh] I think that the response that one has to make, to at least the second of those two points is this: either we are created in God’s image – so it is written... (somewhere!) – or, (much more probably) we create God in our own image. And so our thought of what to expect – or to believe – about an agency, which is intelligent and interested in a world like ours, would have to be derived in some way from our own experience of relationship with others. And the one that provides us with most materials is the experience of fatherhood. I’m a father and I’m rather fond of my children (occasionally they are of me also)! And I sometimes wonder to myself just how much suffering I would subject them to for the greater good that I see – but they don’t – for their lives. I’m not sure that going to the dentists is quite comparable to being drowned in a tsunami; but I am quite confident that I wouldn’t drown any of them in a tsunami – however annoying they can sometimes, occasionally, be – in the hope that it might teach them a lesson or stop me from being irritated in future, or some greater good of that kind!
So from my own experience of fatherhood I’m very puzzled by the thought that there could be an interested and intelligent being who’s interest wasn’t malevolent. Even, just a neutral sort of interest, conscious of the fact that we have emotions and sensations: emotions of fear, sensations of pain – as possibilities – emotions of joy and sensations of pleasure – as possibilities – and thinking with respect to them, especially if you had some responsibility for them; thinking that, nevertheless, you could subject them even to the most extreme of challenges to their emotional and physical, sensory, well-being – in the hope that some greater good would thereby be subserved.
And the reason why I think that that seems a deeply suspicious move to make, on the part of theologians, is that it takes us back to the point about the alleged omnipotence of God: if God is omnipotent, then he could create a world which has free-willed beings in it and which doesn’t have pain and suffering in it. What’s the logical inconsistency there?
What the theologian has to argue, in response to that point, is that the world could not, could not – notice the strength of the modality there, that actually occurs in statement (C) – that God could not have created a world with as much good as this world contains, unless it contained the degree of evil, of natural evil that it has in it.
Now why should one accept that? If one accepts that God is genuinely omnipotent, then he could create a world which maximizes the good and minimizes – or perhaps dispenses altogether – the pain and suffering. One could imagine, for example, him creating a world which was entirely intellectual. After all, although many of our agonies are intellectual ones – I mean, some of us are coming up to schools in four weeks time and are being subjected, at the moment, to the most terrible intellectual cruelties – most of the suffering that people think of in the world... let’s take the form of physical suffering: then we think about deprivation at one end and at the other end the excruciating pain of certain kinds of illnesses; or the terrible emotional pain of grief and loss and fear. Why is it that those things should be centrally, or essentially, required for a world to have as much good in it as this one does?
Or, arguably of course, this world doesn’t contain as much good in it, as there could be, given that the quantum of suffering in the world is as it is.
Remember this also, that some of the natural evils that occur in the world do so as a result of our agency. For example, our effect on the environment and our spreading of diseases one to another and the rest. And so that there is a complex relationship between the two kinds of evil that go on in the world: moral and natural. And if the natural evil that exists in the world is, somehow, ruled by a deity for a greater good, then the instrumental action of moral evil, in the world, would have to be willed by that deity too – and wouldn’t just be an artefact of our having free will.
So my thought is this: once you have taken the long route through a whole series of suppositions – thinking that the world might contain a certain sort of entity and this entity, might have the right kind of character, to understand and appreciate our emotional and sensational lives, and might be interested in some way in those emotions and sensations – then the question, if you really, really wanted to accept that view – then the question arises, with great urgency, as to what kind of being that could be, consistently with the way the world in fact is?
And it’s very interesting to notice that, in the development of thinking about the relationship that individual human beings have with their world – with a world containing the possibilities of suffering and the rest – there have been dramatic, dramatically different conceptions of that relationship. For example, in the medieval period, Contemptus Mundi literature was, a great feature – the ‘Da Vinci Code of the day’ – it was the book that told you that the world was a veil of tears and suffering, and that all we had to do was endure and pay your tithes and you would, eventually, get to heaven.
And what followed that period in the renaissance was a re-discovery of the joy and the beauty of the world and the possibility, the pleasure, in the world and a re-focusing of attention by human beings on things that are immanent – things that are here – in the world, and a desire to maximize the pleasure and enjoyment that came from understanding that world, from appreciating the beauties in it and from adding to them. A world, in other words, where ‘The Good’ was conceived as lying in things that spoke to the emotions and the sensations of human beings.
Well, according to a theory which has it that suffering is some part of the production of the greater good, there would have to be questions asked about the degree of consistency between the conception that the renaissance thinkers had about The Good and that conception about the need that the world has for there to be suffering and pain in it. And anybody who takes the sort of position that I do, who’s very sceptical about the idea that there are supernatural agencies – intelligent enough and interested enough in us to know about us, that we can suffer and enjoy, that we can feel fear and that we can feel joy – anybody... any being who had that conception of us, would have to be quite conscious of the effect that its agency had in respect of what we regard as being in our interests and for our good.
So, in that, when we pose the question “is it reasonable to believe that there could be a deity” – and I think, we notice, that our concept of God is a very capacious one which has to do with a great number of different traditions and definitions of what such a being could be, but when we ask that question generally, generally speaking we think ‘an almighty and all-loving deity’.
And can it be reasonable to think that the universe is governed by, even contains, such a thing? And I think the answer has to be: not.
[Applause] [Back to Top]
Well thank you, Professor Grayling, for those interesting remarks in response to my opening statement. You’ll remember that I distinguished between two versions of the problem of evil: the logical version and the probabilistic version. And I suggested that the logical version is no longer defended today; that it has been given up because it’s been recognized that the atheist cannot sustain the enormous burden of proof this involves. But, so far as I could understand Professor Grayling’s position in his opening speech, he’s sticking by the logical version of the problem of evil – despite that, he’s going to maintain it.
Now he said that, “Looking at the world, we would conclude the deity must be either impotent or malevolent”. But to say that is to assume precisely those two hidden assumptions, namely that: “if God is omnipotent he can create any world that he desires”, and “if he’s omnibenevolent he would prefer a world without evil over a world with evil”. And so if the response is not to be question-begging we need to see some argument on behalf of those two premises, and you’ll remember I suggested that those cannot be proved.
First, if free will is even possible, it follows that an omnipotent God cannot create every world that he might desire. Now Professor Grayling responded by saying, “Well, Doctor Craig you’re qualifying divine omnipotence, on your view God is not quite omnipotent” and I want to protest against that and say that’s not at all accurate. Historically, divine omnipotence has always been defined in terms of God’s ability to do whatever is logically possible. The only philosopher that I know of, who thought God could do logical impossibilities, was Rene Descartes. But everyone else has always said: “omnipotence means the ability to do whatever is logically possible”. But God’s inability to make a round square or a married bachelor is not an inability on God’s part because there is no such thing as a round square, or a married bachelor. Those are just self-contradictory combinations of words that have no referent. So God can do anything; anything that is logically possible!
And, as I say, it is logically impossible to make someone freely do something, and I don’t think that Professor Grayling grasped the difference between a possible world and a feasible world. There are possible worlds, logically, where everyone always chooses to do the right thing. But those worlds may not be feasible for God because if God created the agents in them, in the circumstances envisioned, the agents might choose differently – might go the wrong way. So that given that it’s logically impossible to make someone freely choose to do something, not every logically possible world is actualisable by God – only feasible worlds. And therefore this is no qualification of divine omnipotence to say, “there are worlds that God is incapable of creating”.
Now, if you do want to go with Descartes and say, “Well, God’s omnipotence means he can do the logically impossible”, well, then there’s no problem of evil at all! Because God can bring it about that he exists, and that evil exists, even though these are logically incompatible with each other! [some audience laughter] So, if you go that route, you’ve completely dissolved any problem of evil.
Now, what about the second assumption, that “God prefers a world without evil, over a world with evil”? And I suggested that if we have morally sufficient reasons for permitting pain and suffering then sometimes we do allow it. Now, here, Professor Grayling says, “but a father wouldn’t allow his children to suffer so terribly”. I want to say a couple of things here: first, the father analogy is terribly misleading. We must not compare God to a human father when it comes to moral responsibility, because they are so different. God – we have a moral obligation to worship God, but any human father who demanded worship from his children would be egomaniacal. So that the relationship between a child and his human father is completely different from our moral obligations toward God. Moreover, a human father doesn’t have certain ‘rights’ vis-à-vis his child, that God has toward us: God is our creator and sustainer – the author and giver of life. A human father doesn’t have the right to take the life of his own child, but if God wanted to take my life this evening, that’s his prerogative. It is in his hands when I live and when I die. So the moral obligations between a father and his child are utterly different from God’s relationship with us.
But, in any case, the point remains unrefuted: even the human father will sometimes permit suffering, in the life of his child, because of a morally sufficient overriding reason. He wouldn’t permit, perhaps, terrible suffering. But if he has a morally sufficient reason, he’ll permit it. And it is possible that God could have morally sufficient reasons for permitting horrible and terrible suffering in this world. And as long as that’s even possible, the atheist has failed to shoulder the burden of proof – to show that this second assumption is true.
And it’s so important for us to remember here, it’s not the theist who bears the burden of proof here. It’s the atheist who is claiming that (A) and (B) are logically incompatible. It’s the atheist who bears the burden of proof to show that these hidden assumptions are true. All I have to do is simply undercut them by saying, “Well, it’s possible that they’re not true”. The atheist must prove they’re necessarily true and, until he does that, he can’t carry his case.
But remember I said we can go a step further: we can actually prove that (A) and (B) are logically compatible with each other, on the basis of (C)! (C) doesn’t even need to be true! As long as it’s just possibly true, it proves that there is a possible world in which God and Evil co-exist, and I didn’t hear any response from Professor Grayling to that point.
In short, the Logical Problem of Evil is just not defended anymore in the philosophical community. Peter Van Inwagen, in the Philosophical Perspectives of 1991, writes:
It used to be widely held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God. That no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able to tell, this thesis is no longer defended.
So let me just simply, in the interests of debate, go on to the probabilistic problem, even though Professor Grayling didn’t discuss it. I suggested three reasons that the probabilistic problem of Evil faces insuperable difficulties:
First, that we’re not in a good position to assess these probabilities inductively. In a very important article in Philosophical Perspectives of 1991, William Alston – in a classic article on the evidential problem of evil – lists six cognitive limits on us that make it, in principle, impossible for us to judge that God doesn’t have – not have – morally sufficient reasons for permitting the evil in the world. Let me list these:
Number one: lack of data. Our ignorance of the distant future, or the distant past; our ignorance of the ultimate constitution of the universe, the secrets of the human heart.
Two: complexity greater than we can handle. For example, trying to understand different systems of natural law – in which different laws of nature operate – we have no clue about what systems are available to God.
[Three]: the difficulty of knowing what is metaphysically possible. How do we know what logically imaginable worlds are actually metaphysically possible?
Four: our ignorance of the full range of possibilities. We don’t know how these are restricted.
Five: our ignorance of the full range of values. That is to say there may be unknown goods, that God brings about, that we are not even aware of.
And six: the limits of our capacity to make well-considered value judgements. That is to say, to be able to compare different possible worlds with a view toward determining which world would be the best.
Now, in my opening speech I gave an illustration of just one of those cognitive limits, namely: our lack of data. And I illustrated this from utilitarianism. We have no idea, when an action is performed, whether it will ultimately produce great happiness or great disaster, and therefore utilitarianism is wrong in saying that an action is right or wrong based on its consequences – because we don’t know the ultimate consequences.
But let me give another example from current science: in chaos theory, scientists have been able to show that certain macroscopic systems are highly sensitive to the tiniest perturbations. The flutter of a butterfly’s wing, in a jungle in west Africa, can set in motion forces that will eventually issue in a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean. And yet no-one, looking at that little butterfly, would be able – even in principle – to predict such an outcome.
Another example from popular culture: in the movie Sliding Doors, with Gwyneth Paltrow, we see how a young woman is rushing into the underground – to catch a subway train – and just as she approaches the train, the doors begin to slide shut. At that point, the film splits in two, and one half of the film narrates her life as it would have happened if she had made it through the doors. The other half of the film shows what would happen to her if the doors closed before she got there. And what’s interesting, in this film, is the one life turns into happiness, success, everything she does is great; whereas the other life goes from bad to worse, disaster, failure, misery... all because of this one seemingly trivial incident of catching those sliding doors.
Moreover, whether she got through those sliding doors was based upon whether her path was momentarily blocked, on the steps, by a little girl playing with her dolly on the handrail. And, of course, what the movie doesn’t show is that little girl’s playing, with the dolly on the handrail, was also contingent upon – for example – how many, how quickly she buttoned her blouse when dressing for school that morning; or how much muesli her mother put in the bowl – how long it would take to eat breakfast – or whether her father had to stop to tie his shoe on the way into the underground. You begin to see that these contingencies result in simply unpredictable situations.
But here’s the really interesting part of the film: it’s the ‘shock ending’. At the end of the movie you suddenly discover that, in the life in which everything is going hunky-dory and just super, she’s suddenly killed in a car accident – and her life comes to an end. Whereas in the miserable, unhappy life, that life turns around – and it turns out that that is the really good life after all.
This illustrates, I think, so poignantly how we’re simply not in a position to judge – when things come into our life – that God does not have a morally sufficient reason for permitting it. William Alston concludes:
“We are simply not in a position to justifiably assert that God would have no sufficient reason for permitting evil. And if that is right, the probabilistic argument from evil is in no better shape than its late, lamented, logical cousin”.
Second: I suggested that Christian theism increases the probability, of God and evil in the world, because God’s purpose in the world is not happiness, but the knowledge of himself – to bring people freely to salvation. Well, how is God doing on this job? In 1990 some fascinating statistics were released, from the US Centre for World Mission, plotting the number of committed Christians in the world toward non-Christians in the world. in the year AD 100 there were 360 non-Christians for every committed Christian in the world; by AD 1000 there were 220 non-Christians per committed Christian in the world; by 1900 there were 27 non-Christians for every committed Christian in the world; by 1989 there were only 7 non-Christians for every committed Christian in the world.
God is building his kingdom down through history, and it is not at all improbable that natural and moral evils are part of the means which he uses to bring people into his kingdom and to give them eternal life and everlasting happiness – in comparison to which, the sufferings of this life will diminish to infinitesimal proportions.
[Applause] [Back to Top]
Well thank you, thank you for that and, thank you to Professor Craig too: it’s a very, very long time since I’ve heard a sermon.
My first point is that one always finds oneself in a difficulty, in this kind of a situation which I find myself at the moment, me being someone who is the token atheist here. Because I say, begin by saying: Okay, okay, just suppose that there’s a profoundly improbable, you know, idea that there is some being out there in the universe that has these properties of being, you know, interested in us and aware and understands our situations, so on... just suppose that there is such a being. Then, and then you trot out your memory and I used to have to go to chapel every morning – at the school that I went to – and I’ve vague memories of “Almighty God to whom all things are known, all things are possible” and so on, and so I’d think, “Oh well, okay, this supposed being is going to be omnipotent and he loves us and he’s our father”, and all the rest of it.
And then I find, when I have debates with theologians, that that’s not what’s meant at all! In fact, the goalpost – the divine goalpost – keeps moving, every time you say anything about this – what such a being would have to be like – you find that that’s not what’s meant!
So, so when I say, you know, that we either create God in our image or he is, he’s created us in his image and so on, then our best understanding of what that relationship would be – with a creator who cares about us, and all that – is a fatherly relationship (except I, as a father, tend not to drown my children all that often and so on) you know that that attempt to try to get some grip on the moral realities here, I find, is a ‘misleading analogy’. So, we flounder because the goalposts do move all the time.
But, still, let’s do our best:
“Possible... a logically possible world may not be a feasible world”. Now, I can understand that a logically possible world might not be a desirable world. It could be logically possible that God could – there could be a God – and that God could create free-willed beings and also that there’s no natural evil in that world. But Professor Craig said that that’s not “feasible” for God. I... (this is slightly jigsaw-puzzled because I’ve got to keep several pieces going at the same time) we have to remember that we don’t have a great deal of knowledge about God’s nature – so bear that in mind – but we know enough to know that it’s not feasible for God’s purposes that, although it’s a “logically possible world” – in which there is free will but no natural evil – that’s not feasible for God.
But I find the distinction between logical possibility and feasibility so fine and subtle a one, that I don’t actually see it. I can see a distinction between logical possibility and desirability, but I don’t see the difference between possibility and feasibility.
Then, Professor Craig talked about God having “morally sufficient reasons for suffering”. That’s a fine-sounding phrase: “morally sufficient reasons for suffering”. And that, you know, even if we don’t know what it is – and we’re here once again behind the veil of ignorance – nevertheless we could take, on trust, the thought that being drowned in a tsunami, or dying painfully of cancer or something, would be good for us in some way – but we don’t know what way that is and we simply have to believe it.
But remember, that the discussion we’re having at the moment is “is it reasonable for us to believe that, in a world which contains tsunamis and childhood cancers and the rest, that there could be a being, at least, of great power, at least who understands and has some concerns for our feelings and attitudes and so on?” Whether... whether it’s reasonable to believe that there could be such a being. And I am suggesting that there is a kind of incoherence in the idea of a being, with anything like the traditional attributes of God, and a world with the kind of world that we do in fact occupy.
Professor Craig says that there are three shortcomings to the probabilistic version of the argument from evil. And, by the way, I should just mention that Professor Craig says that the “current authorities” in the field say that “nobody now takes the Logical Problem of Evil seriously”. Well, long before that happened, people had stopped taking seriously the Argument from Authority, which is – as you know – a logical fallacy. So the fact that people – that the theologians – are not taking arguments seriously, doesn’t seem to me a refutation of it.
But, having left that one aside, the Probabilistic Problem of Evil: “We’re not in the position to assess, inductively, the probability etcetera etcetera.” So this is an appeal to our finitude and our ignorance, so we don’t know what those morally sufficient reasons would be.
Second point: “Christian theism entails doctrines that increase the probability of the co-existence of God and evil”. Well, as I say, if you look at, if you’re going to look at it from a Christian perspective – if you’re going to look at it from the point of view of the Canonical Gospels – where we are told that God is “almighty”, that he is “our Father” (we say “Our Father in Heaven” and so on) that he can do all things, that he cares about the “least sparrow”; he also says by the way – also for those of you who are about to do schools, “take no thought for tomorrow” (you don’t have to revise and so on)! He says all these very comforting things which give us – if we’re going to start at a Christian perspective, at any rate – a picture of the deity wholly inconsistent with the idea of natural evil in the world – unless we accept that there is some enormously greater good that’s going to be subserved by some of these terrible sufferings that are experienced in this world – and we’ll just get you to take on trust the fact that there is that greater good, but we don’t know what it is.
And finally, Professor Craig says that “relative to the full scope of the evidence”, (not just the evidence of evil in the world but all the evidence that there is), that “God’s existence is probable”. I would have thought that taking the full scope of the evidence into account, about this world of ours, would have made the probability that there is a supernatural being of some kind, in this universe, infinitesimally... the probability infinitesimally small.
One last thing: Professor Craig talks about, the ‘defeater’ of the utilitarian argument – residing in the fact that we don’t really know what the ultimate consequences are going to be of our actions. I can know what the, you know, medium-term consequences are going to be: the difference between giving you an ice cream and kicking you on the ankle – I can tell that the one is going to probably be more pleasant for you than the other! So, generally speaking, of course, when we’re being ‘utilitarian’ about our actions we go by our best lights and by what’s most likely in the course of our experience, and so on.
And what one doesn’t want to do is to suffer ‘paralysis of moral action by butterfly effect’! You see, if I thought... I’m just about to do something – just about to give you an ice cream – and I think to myself, “God! I’d better not do that, you know, because this could cause a storm over the Atlantic, well, you know”, [audience laughter] “or some dreadful... some great disaster will happen”, and, you know, “everything is so contingent that you’d best not do anything at all”! Well, of course, the fact of the matter is that, in this world of ours, our understanding of human nature and the human condition is pretty rich and good on the whole for all our purposes. Remember what John Watts said in the preface to his essay, he said, “The light that is set up in us shines bright enough for all our purposes”. And generally speaking, as I say, we’re much more confident that ice creams are better than kicks on the ankles!
So, from that point of view, I think our grasp of moral realities is extendable to this idea, this debate that we’re having, about whether it’s reasonable to think that a world such as ours might have something that rather blurrily approximates to one or another of the conceptions of a deity, even though... even though it’s very hard to pin down just quite what that might be.
This is not intended to be a commercial break but I might just mention a recent book of mine in which I set forward an argument – among my other arguments – about these matters; where I talk about the “perfumed smokescreen” which lies between the “ordinary believer” – who goes to church and is told that, “God is a Father who cares for you and he holds you in this hand and you need have no fear and that all is for the best in this”, indeed, “best of all possible worlds” (as we’re told) – and the theological “sophistication”, in both senses of the term, of the arguments which try to show us that, despite appearances, despite the facts, despite the realities of our existence in this world and our confrontation with how hard and harsh the world can be – nevertheless, fundamentally and ultimately, it’s all for our good.
Professor Craig said that, from the point of view of Christian theology, happiness is not the point. The point is not for you to be happy, at least, in this life. There is a posthumous dispensation in which you will know ultimate satisfaction and fulfilment and joy. So there is a ‘blank cheque’: just if you can endure – if you can accept – if you would keep your faith despite the contrary evidence, then you can have a reasonable hope that in this future dispensation you will be happy.
So happiness is the ultimate end, although it’s not our ‘happiness’: it’s not a happiness of ice creams and sunshine but, well, not quite sure what it might be... endless hymn singing or some, some alternative, at any rate, to what we normally take to be the ‘happiness’ in this world.
But I, but I think, remember that our point is about, about ‘reasonableness’: it’s not my task, as someone who doesn’t believe in the existence of supernatural agencies in the universe, to disprove the existence of such things. That’s not my task. Nor is it my task to prove that the universe is only a natural realm. My task is merely to say that on any of the traditional understandings of the notion of the deity, of such a supernatural being – even the most minimal one which just requires of it, that if it had any degree of insight and of appreciation of our perspective of things – is it reasonable to believe that there could be such a being? And also that such a being could have any influence at all on what happens to creatures like us, in this universe. Is it reasonable to believe in such a being, consistently, with the facts of the world as they are around us? And I say, I say not.
But remember that, again, to take a cue from Professor Craig there: that, that’s a point made about the existence of natural evil in the world, but one could generalize it and say from the point of view of the total scope of the evidence, the reasonableness of believing such a thing diminishes to zero.
[Applause] [Back to Top]
Question Batch 1/3:
Roger Preece: Excellent questions to start with! I think this is going to be a very good discussion!
So, the first question was about free will being important and how that reflects on the logical problem of natural evil; the second was about the burden of proof – are you innocent until proved guilty or guilty until proved innocent, with respect to God? – and, thirdly, the actual question about do we have free will and can it be proved?
Who’d like to open up?
WLC: I think the question about the burden of proof is the first one that needs to be tackled because that’s the most fundamental. Anyone who makes who makes an assertion or a truth claim – that he claims to know – is making a claim to knowledge. Now, traditionally, knowledge has been defined as ‘justified, true belief’. So if you make the claim to know something, you need to have some sort of justification for believing that.
So if the atheist is claiming, with respect to the logical problem of evil, that these two propositions (A) and (B) are logically inconsistent, then he has the burden of proof to show that, because they’re not logically inconsistent prima facie (on their face). One is not the negation of the other. So if he’s saying they’re implicitly contradictory then he must be making these hidden assumptions.
Now, in order for (A) and (B) to be logically incompatible, these hidden assumptions have to be true in every possible world. And so, as I say, there is an enormous burden of proof that the atheist has to bear here. When I suggest (C), as a proof that they are compatible, this is a supererogatory act that the theist isn’t called upon to do. The theist can simply rest with neutrality that no inconsistency has been proved and can just simply sit back. But if the theist wants to go further and say ‘yes, they are compatible’ then he needs to come up with something like (C) as a means of showing the compatibility of (A) and (B).
So I’ve tried to bear my share of the burden of proof tonight, and the atheist needs to bear his share too.
RP: Would you accept that, Professor?
ACG: Well, on the question of ‘burden of proof’, no, because as I see it the question is the rationality of thinking that, that a concept applies to something: “is it rational to think that there might be something to us that asks for the concept of a deity, somehow, as you define it?” That I take to be the problem we’re debating tonight, and I take it that we’re not in the business of proving or disproving the existence of a deity. We’re just asking whether, if there were some such thing, if it would be consistent with the existence of natural evil in the world.
And, so far as the point goes concerning the alleged – continually alleged by the, alleged by the theist (to be alleged by the atheist) – that the same points, the same strategy can be adopted there, as is adopted by plenty – particularly if you’re reasonable enough [inaudible] which is, you have to suit the definition of the terms in the apparent contradiction and the contradiction is resolved. So that’s my difficulty – in that my difficulty there is that I don’t have a clear conception of what it is that God is, that omnipotence is, what omnibenevolence is – by means of which you can escape the problem posed by asking “is it rational to think that there could be a being – vaguely speaking – that he’s interested and concerned in us, consistently with natural evil in the world?”
WLC: Now, I think it’s important to see that these are distinct questions. When you start talking about “is it rational, is it reasonable to believe” then you, I think, move to the probabilistic version. In terms of the logical version, we’re talking about whether or not a person who affirms these two propositions, is incoherent – is he somebody who, like, believes in a round square or a married bachelor? And if the atheist wants to say that he is, then the atheist needs to prove that there is a contradiction there. And this has been typically what atheists have tried to do. The late J.L. Mackie, as you know here at Oxford University, tried to press this logical version of the problem of evil, and it was his work that really evoked Alvin Plantinga’s free will defence.
And I think Plantinga has really successfully shown that no atheist is able to bear so heavy a burden of proof, and that’s why the debate has moved into this other question, “is it reasonable?” as you put it, “is it rational to think that a good and omnipotent being exists in light of the evil in the world?”
ACG: There’s a video, in fact, of J.L. Mackie and Alvin Plantinga –
WLC: – yeah –
ACG: – walking very slowly up and down the lawn with [inaudible... “that feather scarf the professor had?”] in parallel lines and, as you know, parallel lines never meet... and neither did Mackie or Plantinga [laughter] because it was so evident that they were talking about quite different conceptions of omnipotence and I think that is the difficulty here. But what the theist wants is to – if he is not going to ‘give up’ the idea that the deity is omnipotent – which is especially what Keith Ward did when we were talking about it –
WLC: – right, and I wouldn’t have, I’m not taking that route, no –
ACG: Right, you, you don’t want that. So you’ve got to have a conception of omnipotence in which, nevertheless, there are bits that God can’t do. That’s the trick that, you’re –
WLC: Yeah, look now see, we need to be careful because things like a logical, or rather, things like a square circle, a married bachelor, a round triangle aren’t really ‘things’. So I do think that God can do any thing – but these are not ‘things’, they’re just combinations of words that have no referent. So I’m sticking with the classical conception of omnipotence which has been enunciated by Thomas Aquinas and Anselm and all the rest. I’m not backing away, as some of these modern theologians do. On the contrary.
But if you are wanting to go with this very strong, Cartesian definition of omniscience – omnipotence – where God can do logical impossibilities, then there just isn’t any problem of evil because he can do logical contradictions!
ACG: Well, now, I agree with you there, and, I don’t think that reason would expect that a God who’s truly omnipotent could make ‘green sleep... furiously’, let’s say.
WLC: Uh huh.
ACG: And so it is just a matter of terminologies. It doesn’t leave a God with much remit if [inaudible and causes participant and audience laughter].
ACG: But I think that if, if people are to take a more substantive example of what would, would be possible or impossible for an omnipotent deity rather than just a grammatical example – but I think your ‘round square’ is like [inaudible] – it’s confused. But then you, I think, would then have to respond to the thought that if it’s logically possible that there should be a world containing free-willed individuals, and where there is no natural evil – because that’s logically possible – then the point that you make about it not being feasible for God, carries the weight of the argument. Now, you have –
WLC: Say, say that again?
ACG: You have to give us an account of why it would not be feasible for God to create a world in which there are free people in the absence of natural evil –
WLC Yeah –
ACG: – given that’s logically possible.
WLC: Yeah, I don’t seem to think that there’s any reason to think that that would be infeasible – to have a world of free will without natural evil. You see, that’s difficult and it might be infeasible because it might be that any worlds of free creatures, in which there is no natural evil, some of these creatures go wrong, and so you have moral evil in those worlds and so if there were a world with no natural evil maybe they would be worse worlds because they would have, you know, moral evil in them. So these two things sort of play off against each other – and this is the question that was asked here.
I mean, certainly God could create a universe with no natural evil in it. He could create a world which consisted just of a single bowling ball floating in outer space. That would be a world with no natural evil, but it would be a very uninteresting world. I mean, what we want to know is could God create a world in which there are moral agents with free will – that can create a significant amount of moral good – and yet with less natural evil in it?
And I think we really have no idea of whether that’s feasible. And moreover, that relates to the second assumption: God might have good reasons for permitting a lot of this natural evil in a world with free creatures. And I think, as a Christian, that it’s related to the Kingdom of God, if God wants to bring the maximum number of people freely into his Kingdom. And I don’t find it at all implausible to think that natural evil and, and moral evil could be a part of the circumstances in which he uses to do this.
RP: We’ve covered those two of the questions in terms of free will and a little bit of natural evil. What about the point over there about is God innocent until proved guilty?
WLC: Well that was the first question about burden of proof.
WLC: But we haven’t really talked about why we believe in free will – or if we do – I don’t know your [to Grayling] position on that actually.
ACG: Ah well, if I think my hands are more than [inaudible] with respect to this subject, with which we’re all very familiar –
WLC: Uh huh.
ACG: – since almost everybody in this room has written an essay on trying to question free will and determinism beforehand! And um, how long have we got?
ACG: We’ve got a week – it’s bank holiday weekend isn’t it? We could stay all weekend!
ACG: I mean, I think the short answer is this: that, in order to make intelligible to ourselves the idea of occupying a moral universe, that our social universe is a moral universe, that it makes sense to say that things depend on what we do and some people should be punished for what they do, and in order to give content to how we evaluate and judge actions and characters, we really need to think that it’s possible for people to do other than they do when they make choices. So it looks as though the concept of free will is essential to our thinking in terms of the possibility of morality at all. And it may very well be that the problem is just, (in short hand), the kind of solution that I quite prefer, that the vocabulary of morality, requires that ‘does free will...’ is an incommensurable vocabulary with respect to the vocabulary of natural law and causality – which is where the idea of determinism arises.
I’ll just explain that very, very briefly: imagine you have two people standing at the side of a field, and one of them talks about the occurrence on the field in terms of the velocity of objects of certain mass interacting with one another in certain ways, the emitting of certain frequencies and so on. And the second person describes it as a ‘rugby match’. But it might be that the vocabulary of the second person is sociological vocabulary where terms like, ‘a goal point try’ or ‘scrum’, and so on – which cannot be translated into any element of physics and vice versa – and yet, in some respects, they amount to the same thing. So a deterministically causal, natural law, account of the world, and a sociological / moral account of the world may focus on the same thing – they’re co-referential – but they differ deeply in the sense that they’re at different, different purposes. That would be the answer I would give.
WLC: Now –
ACG: – Quite a useful one for the schools, by the way! [laughter]
WLC: I was, I thought I was tracking with you until the rugby illustration, because –
RP: – I think they don’t play it in America!
WLC: No, no it’s not that! [laughter] It’s that it, what the illustration suggests – and what I think, then, you must believe – is that in fact, although morality requires the belief that we are free, you don’t really think that we are. That physics will give a thoroughly deterministic and complete account of why we make decisions we do – in terms of brain waves, electricity, neurons firing and so forth, everything is determined – but that language of morality is just a way of talking about these in a different way, like talking about the physics of these footballers in terms of game vocabulary. And that is really a deterministic view of human beings that really says that this talk of morality is ultimately illusory but, unfortunately, necessary for us if we’re to act morally.
Is that your view or do you think that we really do have libertarian free will?
ACG: Now I think that in just the way that someone like [Carnap?] for example said, if you ask me the question, ‘Do numbers exist?’ I say, ‘Yes they do’; if you ask me, ‘Do tables exist?’ [taps table] I say, ‘Yes they do’, but if you ask me, ‘Do numbers and tables exist?’ then I say, ‘Do you mean in the same realm’ (in the way that tables do, in the physical realm and that numbers do in the arithmetical realm)? Well, my answer is: you’re muddling two different kinds of question. You have to believe in the existence of numbers in order to do arithmetic; you have to believe in the existence of tables in order to do complex physics.
And in just the same way to do morality, you have to take very seriously and commit yourself to the idea that –
WLC: – Yeah –
ACG: – that agents have free will. Just as you have to commit yourself to the idea that causality is an integral part in physics. So, unless you take them very seriously – but the question of trying to reduce one to the other is precisely the source of our muddle about these things – just as it would be if you said, ‘numbers could only exist if, in some sense, they exist in the same way that tables do or vice versa’.
WLC: Yeah. Yeah, I’m still not happy with that, let me just say why I do, one reason I do believe in free will –
RP: – And then we’ll take some more questions.
WLC: – Alright.
RP: – Yeah.
WLC: – and that is, I think determinism is rationally unaffirmable, because the person who finds himself believing in determinism has to think that his belief in determinism is just pre-determined! That it’s not the result of rational process: it’s like having a toothache or a limb growing out of a tree. And, therefore, if you believe in determinism, you ultimately have to believe that your belief in determinism is itself determined and therefore irrational – and therefore, determinism cannot be rationally affirmed, I think. And so I’m a libertarian.
ACG: Sorry, can I just say –
RP: – Closing point on this –
ACG: – Yes, okay – that if you believed in determinism, which I, I wouldn’t, but if you believed in determinism, [some audience laughter] then it would be true that you would be determined to believe in determinism – but that wouldn’t be ‘irrational’, that would just be ‘non-rational’.
RP: I think we’ll close at that point and have some more questions...
Question Batch 2/3:
[Question summary and first part of A.C. Grayling’s answer is missing from the recording.]
ACG: ... and, of course, that all sorts of horrible things are going to happen to them if they don’t obey – I mean, after all, we’re all familiar with the concept of sin as the concept of disobedience by [inaudible] – and that it’s fundamental to most of the traditional religions that the book would emulate what it is to be, to walk with God is to submit to him or to obey. And say that the idea of God’s punishment is very naturally associated with those things. But, I must say, I find it terribly difficult to believe that an infant could have committed such grievous sins that it deserved being drowned in the tsunami that happened recently. And so the idea of natural evil as a ‘just punishment from God’ makes the idea of a being who’d do such a thing even less appealing than before.
WLC: I’d like to address that first question as well, because had I had more time in developing my third point, about the probabilistic version of the problem of evil, I would have appealed to an argument – a moral argument – for the existence of God, as one of the reasons to believe that God exists, that is on the other side of the scale. So that even if evil presents a certain weight against the existence of God, I think it’s out-weighed by these other arguments on the other side of the scale for God, and one of these would be a moral argument. And I think that evil actually proves the existence of God – I think there’s actually an argument for God from evil and here’s how it would go:
Premise one: If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist – and what I mean by as ‘objective’ is values that hold, and are binding, independently of whether anybody believes in them or not. And I think many theists and atheists, alike, agree on this – I could give you citations that, in the absence of God, moral values become just the spin-offs of sociobiological evolution – similar to the altruistic behaviour exhibited in a pack of baboons, where it’s beneficial for the species to act in altruistic ways. So that, apart from God, it’s hard to see how you can escape socio-cultural relativism. If God does not exist I think it’s plausible that objective moral values do not exist.
Second premise is: evil exists. Namely, some things really are wrong (and take your list of them).
From that it follows, premise three: therefore, objective moral values exist. Namely, some things are actually evil.
And therefore, four: God exists.
So, if those first two premises are true it follows that evil actually serves to demonstrate the existence of God. So, while evil superficially seems to call into question God’s existence, I think on a deeper level, evil seems to prove God’s existence because, in the absence of God, there really isn’t any good or evil – per se – in the universe.
Could I say something about the wrath – well, oh, if you want to respond to that first?
ACG: May I respond to that –
WLC: – Yes –
ACG: – it’s a very important point, I think, in so far as any facts about human beings so, if it’s an objective fact – if the adjective ‘objective’ applies here – that human beings (generally speaking) have noses and ears and things... if these are objective facts, then there are objective facts about human nature, human beings and interests, the human condition – I mean things like, for example, human beings’ need for play, for relationships, for affection, for warmth, for comfort and security. These are all facts about human beings which make moral demands on other human beings.
I mean, if know that you’re a human being – a sensitive, sentient, thinking creature, and that you’re capable of suffering, capable of pleasure – and I know what giving you an ice cream and kicking you out of the way, and all those things, will produce to your benefit in some way, then I see that as an obligation – as an imposing obligation – to act accordingly every right has, as its inverse, an obligation. So it seems to me that, insofar as those things are objective, then there are objective moral values.
Where the difference comes in, between a theological conception of morality, and this one, is that it’s possible to believe that our understanding – our insight – might mature and evolve through history. And in fact I think that theologically-based morality does this too. After all, in Leviticus 22 (or something like that) it says that “if a man sleeps with another man or with a woman, kill him” – we don’t do that anymore, mercifully. And that’s because we’ve evolved our understanding of these prescriptions and so we behave differently.
And so these social facts, they can change even in the interpretation of theologically-based morality. It seems to me that all we’re doing is we are taking our different – and, I hope, more considered and mature and sympathetic view about human nature and its needs and interests – but still respondent to what are objective facts out there in the world. So, it’s from that point of view that we can be fully objective in your morality without having to invoke the existence of a God.
WLC: Yeah, see I wouldn’t call those objective at all. I think that’s exactly the point that these evolutionists or sociobiologists like Michael Ruse, for example, are making. He would say that if you ‘rewound the film of evolution’, so to speak, and let the process run again, you might evolve a very different kind of creature than homo sapiens with a very different set of values. And for homo sapiens to think that human beings are intrinsically valuable – or have certain moral duties and obligations – is to be guilty of speciesism – kind of akin to racism, of favouring your own species and thinking it’s especially valuable.
And Ruse wrote an especially interesting article called ‘Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda?’ in which he argued that, while rape may be a constant in human societies as a result of our sociobiological evolution, that we could well imagine a race of intelligent extraterrestrials for whom rape was not a moral constant. And if these beings were to come to Earth and, say, began to rape throughout the Earth and maybe even use us for labouring animals or as food (as we do cattle and pigs), what could we say to them? If we said, “But we human beings think this is wrong to do that!” they would just reply, “Well that’s just a product of your sociobiological evolution, there’s nothing particularly objective about that morality, and there’s no reason that we should regard that as true – that’s just your own speciesism.”
And so, I don’t think that that gives a really objective foundation for moral values. On the contrary I think that’s exactly what I was saying, is that if God doesn’t exist then we’re just animals. We’re just relatively advanced primates, and animals aren’t moral agents and don’t have moral duties. And I don’t see that we do either because these are just ingrained into us by evolution and the survival of the species.
ACG: I agree with you that we’re animals and an advanced form –
WLC: Yeah, on atheism, I said! That’s not my – [audience and participant laughter]
ACG: – I just dropped the “just”. You said, “If there isn’t a God we’re just animals” but that’s fine by me. So, I think that there my problem is that, just take the rape point, for example, and here is an historical fact about the evolution of moral thinking about rape: that it was once – and until relatively recently – thought in Catholic doctrine, that rape wasn’t as bad as masturbation because at least rape would issue in conception. So from a moral theological point of view there is that distinction. And, of course, in the past it was regarded as perfectly acceptable for men to carry off women that they needed a wife for [inaudible]. There is a fragment from one of the ancient cities of Syria saying that at a certain season of the year no, no man “felt like” taking a woman in the street – of course this was a very bad bit of news for the men at the time – perhaps the women at the time didn’t mind.
But, anyway, there were, you know, very different conceptions of these things that they involved too – even in the contexts of theological morality... But –
WLC: Now, say that –
ACG: – It just seems to me if it’s an important point, about human possession of noses being an important fact about human beings – in the same category as human interests, needs, desires, even sentiments, capacities for pain and joy and so on – if you put them on the same plane, which they seem to me to be natural facts – naturalistically conceived facts about human beings. And then they provide a basis for us for thinking about appropriate responses to them. So if, for example, some – you saw somebody – lying on the floor, wailing and in pain and you thought to myself ‘What should I do about this situation?’ and supposing the alternatives that presented themselves were: one, to go up to them and help them, and the other was to kick them, then – you know – somehow or other the facts about that situation seem to constrain which choice you should make.
And that seems to me a very powerful basis for thinking about a natural perspective countenance between them.
WLC: Let me pick up on your example because I think it’s illustrative: on the atheistic view I think it’s impossible to contrast that ancient society’s values with what we think today, and to say that moral progress has been made, because that would be to make a judgement on their views or their attitudes compared to ours. What you can say is moral change has occurred, but it would be impossible to say that there’s been genuine moral progress, because there is no objective standard by which to measure it.
So, again, you’re just lost in socio-cultural relativism and these ancient Syrians will say, “Our view of sexual relations to women is different from yours and it’s just as good”. In fact, what they would do, Professor Grayling, is they would look at the animal kingdom and they would say, “Acts that look very much like rape go on all the time in the animal kingdom”. If a male animal is prepared to force himself upon a female on occasion, he – as a more, stronger animal – is more likely to propagate his genes and hence issue in progeny so that he has a selective advantage by doing this. So I think that this attempt to root moral values in sociobiology is just really... horrid! [laughs] And ultimately leaves us, I think, with the position of saying that there isn’t really any objective moral truths and that moral progress and moral blame and things like this become just subjective and relative.
ACG: Two very quick points on this –
RP: – Can we finish on this one?
ACG: – Yep. On the business of the animal – on the male animals and the rest of it – you obviously haven’t been observing how pigeons behave in the breeding season, because it’s very definitely females that choose the men. I used to think that I wouldn’t at all mind living in classical Athens if I could take my dentist and his equipment with me –
WLC: [laughs!] Yes!
ACG: But then I’d think about, “Well, just so long as I wasn’t born a woman or slave or a non-Athenian or –”
WLC: – Well, and if you survived as an infant since they practiced infanticide –
ACG: – Exactly, so... Yes, exactly. So I think we’ve made a lot of moral progress since that time and you’ve helped me with my point.
WLC: [Shuffles to respond, remembers Grayling has the last word]
RP: Do – [audience laughter] Do you perhaps briefly, want to cover the, “Is God’s knowledge satisfied – with his plan – satisfied with the death of atheists?”
WLC: Well that just strikes me as a bizarre question and no I don’t think that the knowledge of God requires the extermination of men. I want to say though, about the ‘God’s wrath’ question: I don’t want to back away from God’s wrath. I think that God is a just and holy God who punishes sin and evil, and ultimately this is our hope that we do live in a moral universe after all – that evil will be conquered, evil will be punished and dealt with.
But it is presumptuous on our part, any time we see an act of evil in the world, to say, “Oh this is God’s judgement on that person” – and you’re shaking your head [to questioner] you probably weren’t asking that then, so that’s fine. I just don’t want us, want folks to think that one is being presumptuous. I think that one always extends acts of mercy toward the suffering – this is our moral duty.
Again, one of the differences between Christianity and utilitarianism – when you see someone suffering – you’re not paralyzed by the consequences. That’s the utilitarian who’s paralyzed, because he doesn’t know what the consequences are going to be. The Christian acts on the maxim “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” regardless of the consequences.
RP: In the interests of time we need to move on a little bit. The galleries are important and we don’t want to ignore them. From the top, two questions...
Question Batch 3/3:
RP: Right, that’s the question, “why did the tsunami happen?”, second question? [takes second question] So “multiple paths of life – “
WLC: – Yeah –
RP: – the question’s about, “Will one of them reach the right goal?” [Takes third question] “Could God make there be no moral evil?”
Okay, can you keep the comments very concise in these comments?
ACG: Yes... I’ll try to! [laughs] I don’t think that the occurrence of the tsunami was ‘arbitrary’. It happened because of the movement of tectonic plates and the surface of the Earth and there were good physical explanations as to why it happened. [audience responds] Sorry....? Oh a Moral answer. Yes, ‘morally indifferent’ I think, is the term. In itself, it’s just something that happened and its consequences were very tragic for a large number of people. Tragic but, if you think of the outpourings of sympathy and support from those around the world, every time and so on.
The second question was about?
RP: It was about the ‘multiple possibilities’ and –
ACG: – ah, yes, indeed. Indeed. Ah, the point about that story is that it has a false premise to it which is that the way the doors ‘slip’ on that particular occasion, that determined two quite different narratives. But, of course, the doors always slide and you’re going to catch the train the next day and then the next day and then the next day and so on. So, at every point, every node in our existence is one in which there are a large number of possibilities – as your question implies.
And I think the problem is there are two things to think about: and one is the, as the Chinese sage [Sun-Tzu?] said, “Every opportunity taken is twelve opportunities made” so, you know, it doesn’t much matter which one you take provided you make the best of it.
And the other thing is that, of course, the idea of a human mind is the idea of an attempt to impose a kind of narrative upon it – a kind of story. And after the story, a lot of people here are engaged in [inaudible] going on to the world of work and so on, so whether or not you miss the train on that particular occasion, the super-narrative might, nevertheless, still unfold because you’ve got these larger and longer intentions in play. So, you know, I think the idea of the ‘arbitrariness’ or, ‘crucial moments’ in life, although certainly they do from time to time happen, is not such a significant moment.
WLC: With respect to the question about the tsunami, I can no more answer the question “Why did the tsunami happen” than I can answer the question “Why did World War II happen?” It would be presumptuous to think that one could answer that. But I think what one can say – from a Christian point of view – is that overall this fits into God’s master plan of building the Kingdom of God, and that in some way these natural disasters and wars and things of this sort are permitted with the view towards God’s bringing the maximum number of people freely into relationship with himself. And his morally sufficient reasons for that, will be varied and multiple and maybe even centuries removed from now.
And that’s what the second saw and I’m so pleased that the second questioner was staggered by the complexity of this, because so often students will say “Well, why couldn’t God just prevent this evil?” or, “Why couldn’t he just pull that out of the world?” and they don’t understand this inextricably woven web of contingencies to bring about the existence of a single event in history – when you trace the web of contingencies that you describe in that Chinese maxim – it would require an infinite intelligence to do this. It would require an omniscient mind. And that’s exactly what the theist believes God is.
And there’s a theory about this divine omniscience called Middle Knowledge. If you’re interested, there’s a lot of stuff on my website about it. And this Middle Knowledge perspective says that God knows all true counterfactuals of creaturely freedom. That is to say he knows how every free creature would act in whatever circumstances he were to place that creature in. So that, given that kind of Middle Knowledge – that kind of omniscience – God can sovereignly direct the world of free creatures to ultimately achieve his ends, even though that may mean that he has to allow evil and suffering and so forth along the way. He is building his Kingdom of God and it will ultimately triumph.
Now, with respect to the last question about feasibility, certainly God could make a world without moral evil. If he created a world in which there was no higher form of life than rabbits, there would be no moral evil in that world. But we don’t know that he could create a world with significant moral agents, endowed with freedom of the will, which would be a world without moral evil – because, once he creates those free moral agents, he has to stand back and let them act, because it’s logically impossible to make someone choose freely a certain course of action.
So, it may well be the case that there is not a world involving this much moral good in it but without also this much moral evil.
ACG: Two very quick responses, if I may: I’m not so sure about the rabbits. God has always been against promiscuity as you know!
WLC: Ohh! [audience laughter] But he says to the animals in Genesis, “be fruitful and multiply”! [audience laughter]
ACG: Well, that’s one reason why I think that we’re animals too, so – [audience laughter] one thing that interests me about Professor Craig’s answer, to the point the complexity of the world – well, there are two things, actually:
One is about the place, in that view, of miracles, which are –
WLC: – Yes.
ACG: – interventions, in a tremendously complex world, which presumably, would change everything radically, on the sort of ‘butterfly’ thesis.
But the other thing is that you’re premising God’s action in time and, I mean, I don’t know what conception of God we’re working with here but one traditional conception of God is that he’s eternal, he’s outside of time –
WLC: – Right.
ACG: – and the whole of history from its beginning to its end is already present, as God is, and so on. And so the idea of him working out things: “Let’s have a, we’ll have a tsunami after a few million years [and previous]” and so on just to make everything work out for the Good, is inconsistent with that, I feel.
WLC: My research project, that I pursued just before my present research interest, I worked for thirteen years on the question of God and time. And I published six books on this, so this is a subject which is very dear to me, and –
RP: – Keep it brief!
WLC: Alright, okay [audience laughter]! My view is that God is timeless, without creation, but temporal since the moment of creation. That the decision to create a world was a decision to enter into temporal relations with temporal beings and therefore God exists now.
RP: That’s thirteen books condensed into...! [participants and audience laughter]
I’m sorry but time has moved on. We have ‘summing up’ speeches and both speakers will be available afterwards...
I think it’s clear, in tonight’s debate, that there is no logical problem of evil anymore; that the atheist has not been able to demonstrate that God and evil are incompatible with each other, but, on the contrary, the theist can offer a possible explanation that proves the compatibility of God and evil. Moreover I think we’ve seen, on the probabilistic version of the problem of evil that the atheist makes enormously presumptuous probability judgements that we’re simply not in a position to make with any confidence, and I gave a number of illustrations.
I think, as well, that if the Christian God exists then it’s not at all improbable that evil exists because the purpose of life is not to become happy in this life, and that God’s purpose even spills over into eternal life.
And, finally, we’ve not looked at all tonight at arguments for the existence of God except for that argument, for the existence of God, from evil – which is important. And I think when you look at – on balance – the arguments for God’s existence, they make God’s existence quite probable.
But tonight I focused entirely on the intellectual problem of evil and I’m convinced that, for most people, the problem of evil is not really an intellectual problem at all. I think it’s really an emotional problem and so I want to ask, in my closing statement, does Christian theism have the resources to deal with this emotional problem?
And I think it certainly does, because it tells us that God is not a distant creator or an ‘unmoved ground of being’, but a loving, heavenly father who shares our sufferings. Alvin Plantinga has said, “as the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, cooly observing the sufferings of his creatures... he enters into and shares our suffering... he endures the anguish of seeing his son consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross.” Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself in order to overcome sin and death and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. He was prepared to suffer on our behalf; to accept suffering of which we can form no conception. You see, Christ endured a suffering which is literally beyond understanding: he bore the punishment for the sin of the whole world, and none of us can understand that kind of suffering. Even though he was innocent, he voluntarily took upon himself incomprehensible suffering for our sake. And why? Because he loves us so much. How can we reject him who was willing to give up everything for us?
I think, when we contemplate Christ’s sacrifice and his love for us, this puts the problem of evil in a totally different perspective: because we now see that the true problem of evil is the problem of our evil. Filled with sin and morally guilty before God, the question is not how can God justify himself to us, the question is how we can be justified before him. So when God asks us to undergo suffering, that seems pointless or unnecessary, I think meditation upon the cross of Christ can help to give us the moral strength and courage that we need to bear the cross that we’re asked to carry.
And I’m reminded, in this connection, of a woman whom one of my faculty colleagues encountered in periodic visits to a nursing home. This woman had been confined there, in a wheel chair, for twenty-five years. She was blind, and nearly deaf. Her face was being eaten by cancer, so that the right side of her face was ‘dropped’ and she drooled constantly. Yet, to his surprise, he discovered that she had a perfectly lucid mind. And he was also surprised to discover that she was a Christian. Her name was Mabel.
As my colleague continued his visits to the nursing home, his attitude began to change from the idea that he was being helpful, to the realization that Mabel was actually ministering to him, and he began to write down the things that she said.
For one day, as he was preparing for final examinations and his mind felt pulled in a thousand different directions at once, the thought struck him, “I wonder what Mabel thinks about – lying there all day?” and so he went to ask her, and this is what she said, “I think about my Jesus”. My colleague sat there silently for a minute and then he asked, “What do you think about Jesus?” and she answered, “I think how good he’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me in my life, you know. I’m one of those kinds who’s mostly satisfied. Lots of folks would think I’m kind of old-fashioned, but I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.” And then she began to sing an old hymn.
My colleague, stunned, later wrote:
“This is not fiction. incredible as it may seem, a human being really lived like this – I know, I knew her! How could she do it? Seconds ticked and minutes crawled, and so did days and weeks and months and years of pain – without human company and without an explanation of why it was all happening. And she lay there, and sang hymns. How could she do it?”
My colleague concluded:
“The answer, I think, is that Mabel had something you and I don’t have very much of. She had power. Lying there in that bed, unable to move, unable to see, unable to hear, she had incredible power.”
I think that, although – paradoxically – evil is the greatest obstacle to belief in God, at the end of the day, God is the only solution to the problem of evil. If God does not exist then we are locked without hope in a world filled with gratuitous and unredeemed suffering. But, if God exists, he is the final answer to the problem of evil, because he redeems us from evil, and takes us into the everlasting joy of an incommensurable good – which is fellowship with himself.
[Applause] [Back to Top]
Well I’m, my compliments to Professor Craig for his eloquence and his passion. And in regards the story of Mabel she sounds like a remarkable woman and she’s a remarkable testament – I think, too – to the great power of human psychology and the fact that a ‘faith commitment’ to whatever it might be – religion or [inaudible] – can be tremendously sustaining. And that’s a hopeful and happy fact about human beings.
Although one, of course, would rather that they had rational, rather than non-rational, beliefs to sustain them.
And that’s really my main point here, since this is really about reasonableness rather than comfort. And, with great respect to Professor Craig, I have to point out simply that he exemplifies that, um, what always troubles me a bit – when I engage with people of faith – and that is that they claim to know some things; they claim to know that God is a loving Father and that Jesus suffered and all those things – and of course that we need to know those things. And then they claim not to understand – or to know or to comprehend – plenty of other things. They claim to say that our finite cognitive powers ‘close off’ to us the reason why mysterious things happen, why there is suffering involved and at what point [inaudible, “you can no longer say what you’re so certain about”?].
And I think the answer comes down to this, that the basis for a [“phillyistic”?] or theistic, or religious viewpoint on the world, is: it’s – in itself – not a rational one, it’s a non-rational one. In plenty of cases it’s an irrational one too.
Let me just remind you that, until pretty recently – when entering the days of the twentieth century – lots of people, in these islands of ours, believed in the existence of fairies, and that they were responsible for things like your shoe laces going missing and pinching some [inaudible] and so on. And there is that story about the old Irish lady who was asked if she believed in leprechauns and she said, “I do not, but they’re there anyway”! [audience laughter] You know, and that kind of fundamental faith in the existence of these non-natural things runs very deep in human nature. They’re not rational beliefs. They’re non-rational at best and sometimes irrational.
And once you’ve accepted a belief – once you’ve accepted the premise, as it might be probably by a leap of faith, or for whatever reason you have (perhaps you were brought up in that tradition or perhaps you turned to it during a crisis in your life) – then almost anything follows.
A belief in an omnipotent and benevolent deity and of whatever description those things might have – things like that – has exactly the same logical power as accepting a contradiction does. That is, anything follows, anything is possible, any apparently inconsistent and irrational things can be reconciled and accepted in the light of that faith – simply by moving in and out of the shadows and the light, we know some things like “God loves us” and don’t know plenty of other things – why certain things happen in the world.
And with this armoury, really, this... it’s a rhetorical rather than a logical argument. You can, you can do what Professor Craig has so eloquently done. And that is you can assert a position and then, on the basis of it, you can say something which is very, very uplifting and you can tell a story which witnesses to the power of that faith.
But it seems to me that although it’s harder – in some ways starker – to try always to proportion beliefs to evidence – look around you. If you look at the world, look at history and look at the action in the world of those organizations and individuals who have, who have laid claim to faith and those who haven’t and so on – and proportion one’s belief to the evidence, and one takes a secular humanist, non-religious, view of the world, one nevertheless finds in it better and deeper reasons for wanting to respect one’s fellow men, and women, and wanting to try to do something in the world which ameliorates the harshness of things, in this world. A concern for others and kindness towards them, giving them the benefit of the doubt always because they are, like you, individuals who have needs and interests and with which you can sympathize. Those very simple and very deep intuitions about this common experience we have, of being in the world, seems to be a very powerful source of fellowship, and of morality. And one needs nothing more than that.
And I’ve often thought to myself, if I see two people acting with concern towards their fellow human beings, but one does it just out of a sense of fellow feeling – of empathetic insight into the suffering of the other person – and the second person does it because of some theological commitment or faith or belief or desire to, at worst, because of some sort of random nonsense or whatever the case might be, I find that my respect for the first person is much the greater.
[Applause] [Back to Top]
© 2011 bethinking.org
Many thanks to Peter Byrom for all his time and effort spent in transcribing this debate.