Sunday, February 26, 2006

Theodicy and its opposite

Devout people often attempt to address the Problem of Evil, or specific instances thereof (e.g., the manifold cases of cruel and inhuman violence advocated in the Bible) by claiming that their god's actions are above human judgment. Since a god's actions are above human judgment, our judgment that these actions are evil holds no weight: the actions are just and good, even though our judgment declares them not to be.

Obviously, this belief is socially toxic. Once convinced that your own moral judgment can be overridden by a higher authority --- not through moral persuasion, but by simple invocation of the fact that the speaker possesses greater authority than you do --- it becomes all too easy for you to defer similarly to worldly figures in positions of authority.

But that's not why I'm writing. I'm writing to point out, for the record, a flaw in this argument that has always seemed utterly obvious to me, but which I rarely (never?) hear said explicitly, and which doesn't seem to occur to most religious believers.

Let us grant, for the sake of argument only, that all the humanly observable events in the Bible occurred in reality, rather than in fiction. How would you know that your god had better moral judgment than you do?

More concretely: How do you know that your god is not, in fact, a demonic superpowerful alien who gets off on tormenting and deceiving people, but who merely claims to be good?

Once you contemplate this question for about ten seconds, it becomes obvious that the only way to distinguish between a righteous deity and a malevolent, deceitful one is to exercise one's own intellect and moral judgment. If tomorrow, a mysterious, brilliantly shining light appeared over Manhattan, performed a number of miracles, and then ordered everyone, in a profoundly booming voice, to abduct and rape children, then I dearly hope that you would not follow its orders, because you would know that you were right and the shining light was wrong.

In short, no being can demand that you defer to its moral judgment. In fact, once you become an adult, you are morally obligated to refuse to defer to someone else's moral judgment. If you permitted yourself to defer to someone else's moral judgment, it would also be possible for you to be deceived into deferring to an evil or amoral being, which is unacceptable.

Here are some bogus counterarguments, and their refutations:

"God created the universe, and therefore has authority to make moral judgments within it."

First of all, the denizens of the Bible have only God's word that he is responsible for creating the universe. This could be a lie. Second, the power to create something does not imply higher moral judgment with respect to that creation, as the many children of abusive parents know. God could be an abusive parent. The only way to distinguish between an abusive creator and a benevolent one is to exercise one's own moral judgment.

"God is all-powerful, and has the authority to make moral judgments."

This is just a generalization of the previous point. First, it could be a lie that God is all-powerful. Second, being all-powerful (or "X-powerful" for any X) indicates only that God possesses an ability that you do not. It says nothing about whether that power is being exercised for good or evil, which one can only determine by exercising one's own moral judgment.

"God is all-powerful. Formally, for all X, God can do X. Instantiating, let X = 'determine the rules of morality'. Therefore, God can determine the rules of morality."

A clever twist on the above, but flawed in nearly the same way. Let Alice be an omnipotent God, for whom the above holds true. Now consider Bob, the "almost-omnipotent God" for whom the following statement holds: for all X, where X is not 'determine the rules of morality', Bob can do X. Now, how do you distinguish Alice from Bob? It's impossible in general, because "determining the rules of morality" is not an operation that has any observable effects. If you have evidence that some deity is Alice, then you have equal evidence that it is Bob. Therefore, you have no basis for believing that you should defer to this being. Only your own moral judgment remains.

"God is all-knowing, and must have higher moral judgment than you."

First, again, you only have God's word for this; it could be a lie. Second, even if this fact is true, knowing what is good is vastly different from doing what is good. It is possible for an omniscient being to know what's good, but prefer to do evil. And, once again, one can only distinguish between a good omniscient being and an evil omniscient being by exercising one's moral judgment.

"God can send you to Hell, and therefore is the final arbiter of good and evil."

Stalin could send people to the gulag, but that didn't make him moral. If a being possesses the power to damn people to eternal suffering, and that being is evil, then the morally right action is to defy that being, and the highest act of heroism is going to Hell.

(I would also claim that willingness to damn people to eternal suffering for acts committed in a finite lifetime amply demonstrates that the being is evil, but that's independent of this argument.)

"God did [insert good thing here], therefore God cannot be evil."

First, one can easily do a mixture of good and evil, and still be evil or amoral. I bet many evil dictators in history have been kind to their pets. Second, even raising this argument essentially proves my point that one must exercise one's own moral judgment. If you really believed that God's moral judgment overruled your own, then it wouldn't really matter what you think is good. The fact that you feel obligated to bring up an example that you judge to be good shows that you believe in your own moral reasoning more than any authority.

Now, again, in all of the above, I am granting arguendo the reality of some subset of the fictions in the Bible. I don't actually believe in these fictions, so I don't really have to consider the problem. But religious people who endorse the evil in the Bible (or any fraction thereof), even as a matter of allegory, do have this problem. All religious people suffer from unjustified belief, which is an intellectual failing. However, over and above that, I will always regard their refusal to judge their gods as a moral failing.


  1. One of the things that keep me “happy” with my own atheism is the fact that I’ve come up with most arguments myself, somewhat similar to how we’d hope people would use their own judgment when considering authority. When I first came up the argument you presented (back when I was a feisty burgeoning heretic) I stated it as:

    "Since you can’t 'know' whether an entity is truthful, you have to use your judgment. That means god or those aliens that have reached the singularity would have to gain your trust through their actions (or they can just directly manipulate your brain chemistry)."

    Later on I came across the famous phrase: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (I thought Isaac Asimov came up with this, but it turns out it was Arthur C. Clark.) I think this idea has much the same flavor/consequences.

    Another favorite of mine (an argument that deserves more airplay as well) is the idea that people generally adopt the religion of their parents/culture, which would seem to make the whole enterprise of belief as good as random. I discovered later that Richard Dawkins is a fan of this argument as well.

    Lastly is the idea of the Problem of Evil. There is no such problem. Consider that loved one you lost in a horrible fire (for example). After drinking the Gods’ nectar around the Garden of Eternity 10^100 years from now are you still going to be bent out of shape about it? If so then how about (10^100)^100 years from now? I'd say that the limit of Evil as time approaches infinity is zero.

  2. Why does my emotional state in the future negate my experience of evil in the present?

  3. Nothing is necessarily negated. What I mostly wanted to imply (in a whimsical fashion) is that the mind is capable of interesting tricks of perspective. Personally, if I believed in an (especially infinite) afterlife as strongly as I trusted the experiences of my current life, I’d have a hard time being disturbed by anything that happens in this world, but that’s my own mind trick. This assumes, however, that the supposed afterlife is all peaches and cream.

    This honestly doesn’t deal with the question of why such and such an entity would allow “evil,” but if people don’t find any solutions comforting they’re free to try my game, and who knows—maybe the reason there’s evil is that god is simply a mathematician.

  4. When it comes to the problem of evil, most Christians I know argue that the presence of evil reflects some greater good, not necessarily that it is itself good. That is, the tiny bit of evil in this world is the optimal level. This does nothing to address your later points, though.

  5. Good post.

    From time to time I try to point out to people that gods have no relevance at all for morality even if any did exist. Since most people seem to think that religion is the basis of morality, they tend to think that I am just being flippant. But arguments like the ones you lay out here show that you have to evaluate the actions and claims of any putative god in exactly the same way you evaluate the actions of any other actor.

    A related problem is the claim that some people make that there is an eternal objective moral framework independent of any particulars of the human condition. But how would you ever determine if a possible moral law was really part of this objective code? The premise strips away all the grounds for argument that we can use in moral reasoning. Is harm to others such a principle? Well, we would want to consider the consequences of harm....

  6. I would just add that there are times when people must surrender there moral judgement to others: I'm told one can't be an effective soldier or covert ops dude without doing so. This does put one in the precarious position of surrendering one's moral judgement to another, but ideally that decision will be based on the moral worth of the commander's decisions. If George Bush were to ask me to spy on someone on national security grounds, I would be quite dubious.

  7. Hi
    Great blog.

    You and your readers might want to check out the so-called "spiritual" authorities being brought out of India by ex CEO's, and ex bankers and the business, materialist, capitalist, elite. These Masters claim to represent God and/or be the "flesh and blood divinity" and as part of the Indian diaspora, are building commercial empires in the western world. Many are of the Brahmin caste (the upper caste in India), and claim their authority from above.

    One example, Sahaj Marg is targeting Universities in the southern states, using the university newspapers and communication media to lure students under the come-on or "learn to focus", "learn to meditate", "take control of your life" etc... (Texas, Georgia, Louisianna, Carolinas, California)

    In Sahaj Marg, the Guru is to be obeyed in everything and the disciple, called the "serf" is to surrender to the Guru and his appointees to the point of becoming a "living dead". There is even a allegory about a Guru who asked the good serf to "kill his mother".

    They target women mostly and specially women of menopausal age but also target children (5-7 yrs) with a school curriculum with questionable moral or ethical teachings, by our western standards, such as having the courage to stand in war against one's family and relatives. The "religious wars" have gone on in that area for centuries, and making obedient converts of the children of the 'invader', and having your children ready to obey to the point of standing against their own family and relatives, is a good defensive strategy. These teachings are already in 100 Indian schools, with the blessing of the government. It is now on the offensive and coming here.

    They use a mechanism they call "invertendo", where what is true at one level, is false at the other level and only the guru, who is at that level, knows the difference. So they purchase castles (2) and commercial real estate in Europe and have "total control" over the "serfs", with technical help from the "Spiritual Psychiatry Association" of Europe. (One collaborator, a psychiatrist, is member of both groups and has done research on 54 serfs of Sahaj Marg)

    For more: See my blogs under 4d-don
    "The Not So Natural Path" and
    "Meditators Beware"