Monday, August 9, 2010

What does God want?

 Does the existence of non-believers prove that God doesn’t exist? Let’s follow a particularly drastic formulation:

1.      If God exists, then God wants everyone to come to believe He exists before they die.

2.      If God exists, then God could bring about a condition such that everyone believes He exists before they die.

3.      If God exists, then God would not want anything that would conflict with and be at least as important as His desire for all people to believe He exists before they die.

4.      If God exists, then God always acts in accordance with what He most wants.

5.      However, not everybody learns to believe in God before they die.

6.      Therefore, God does not exist.

The weakness of the argument is actually present in Steps 1, 3 and 4, but only makes itself obvious in Step 3. The weakness similarly shows up in the extended formal version of the logical problem of evil:

1.      God exists.

2.      God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.

3.      A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.

4.      An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.

5.      An omnipotent being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.

6.      A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.

7.      If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.

8.      Evil exists (logical contradiction).

9.      Therefore, God is either not omnipotent, or not omniscient or not perfectly good, or He doesn't exist.

As expressed, the sentiments in the steps I’ve put in italics seem pretty reasonable, if we approach the matter with linguistic casualness. However, the line between linguistic casualness and intellectual sloppiness is razor-thin; better to err on the side of precision.

Just what am I talking about?

The word want. We use it a little too freely. The word implies a lack—I want it because I don’t have (enough of) it. There’s something missing there; without it, A is incomplete. Because God exists absolutely and infinitely, He exists without lack. God needs nothing; therefore, in our necessarily strict sense, God wants nothing.

What, then, is our atheist trying to express? Step 1 in the Argument From Unbelief seems reasonable if and only if we use “God wants” to say “God would find it quite jolly if”. If, however, we use “God wants” to say “God needs” or “God is dependent upon”, then we have to rule Step 1 false on grounds of definition violation.

But if our use of “God wants” indicates only something analogous to a preference on His part, then we have a problem with Step 3: Since God does not require our belief to fill any lack on His part, then why would God not allow anything to be more important than making His creatures believe? God didn’t need to create us; He doesn’t need to pay attention to us; therefore, any concern He shows for us is a gift, not an obligation. Moreover, I doubt God consulted with Abraham Maslow about the hierarchy of His priorities; where does our atheist come up with this premise? Indeed, without denying the emphasis the Judeo-Christian God places on the belief of His creatures, it must still be said that the God of the Argument From Unbelief seems to be more neurotic than Woody Allen.

The same problem plagues us in Step 3 of the Argument From Evil. On the face of it, the contention that God should want to prevent evil from occurring is reasonable … except that it assumes God has no higher priorities, or no ultimate purpose in mind, that would dictate the permission of evil.

Step 3 in the logical problem of evil, then, is true only if there are no overriding considerations which require God to permit evil to exist. All it takes is one such consideration to spoil the argument. And that consideration is free will.

Quite frankly, free will is a necessary concession before we can even begin to argue the existence of God, because it’s directly tied into man’s ability to reason. Deny free will, and you deny the validity of reason, which means—in the end—denying the validity of any product of reason, including (O the irony!) Science. You can’t even evade the collapse by postulating a theoretical model of thought that mimics reason but remains rigidly determinist: humans must be able to direct the path of their reasoning, otherwise, a chain of reasoning is no more “true” or “false” than is a vomit or a yawn.

But free will is not just the ability to reason but also to choose a course of action. There is simply no logical way to limit the scope of human action without also limiting or even denying free will: the one is only as broad as the other. We’re talking free will, not free wish. More to the point, to truly have free will, humans must be able to choose to do evil gratuitously, not merely under the compulsion of grim necessity. So it makes no more sense to speak of a universe where humans have free will but can’t do evil than it does to speak of a car that can hit a top speed of 138 mph but can’t coast out of the driveway. Furthermore, if the objective of permitting humans to commit evil acts is for us to learn to choose to do good and prevent evil of our own accord, then for God to act as a supernatural policeman would be Self-defeating, and for us to demand that He do so is to abandon responsibility for our own behavior. As a result, the evidential argument fares no better than the logical argument.

A further problem with the word want is a semantic quibble. The charge is often explicitly made that, because God permits evil to occur, He is either indifferent to human suffering or (worse!) He actively enjoys it.

Let’s consider the case of an ordinary father who buys his young son a car. Now, with that car the son can pursue a career and have an active social life, while freeing up his father’s car and the concomitant time of driving the son to various places or being without transportation while the son uses it. The son can also use that car to get drunk and drive into a busload of nuns. There is simply no way the father can prevent the son from doing so without negating the benefits of having given him the car in the first place. But it doesn’t follow that, because he has chosen to take the risk of filial inebriation and mass nun-icide, the father either doesn’t care about the possibility or wishes it to happen. In the same way, it doesn’t follow that God’s permission of evil comes from malice or indifference.

In orthodox Christian theology, God at bare minimum accepts that many people will commit evil as part of the price of free will, and can even turn evil works to His good purposes. Now, depending on what argument the atheist is making, good and evil can either be objective facts or subjective preferences. If good and evil are merely subjective preferences, then the whole “problem of evil” argument is a waste of time. But if good and evil are objective facts such that they’re encoded into the very fabric of the universe, then to argue that God is indifferent to evil is to engage in self-contradiction: why would an indifferent God bother to write their definitions into the DNA of the cosmos? Why would an evil God mandate goodness and forbid evil?

If, as Thomas Nagel has demonstrated, we can’t presume to understand what it’s like to be a bat because we don’t know what constructing a perception of reality through echolocation is really like (among other things), still less can we presume to understand what it’s like to be omniscient, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, or how those qualities would affect our value judgments (and therefore our actions). Satisfaction and happiness might be my highest values … but I’m not all-knowing, all-powerful and perfectly good. An atheist who is a father of four may pound his chest as to what he’d do or sacrifice for his children if they were endangered or unhappy, and we need not doubt his honesty or sincerity—but he only has four children, not six billion with competing claims and different roles in the economy of salvation.

Both the Argument from Unbelief and the Argument from the Existence of Evil ultimately depend on the projection of human desires onto God. Sure, God desires us to know and serve Him willingly … but His existence doesn’t depend on it. And if people commit evil, it’s not because He desires us to suffer but because we desire to inflict suffering on others.