Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought. Visit John’s blog for more helpful summaries of contemporary philosophical works.
In this series, I am looking at Paul Draper’s article “Pleasure and Pain: An Evidential Problem for Theists”. In it, Draper argues that certain observations (O) we have made concerning the biological utility of pain and pleasure are more surprising (i.e. less likely) on the hypothesis of theism (T) than they are on the hypothesis of indifference (HI).
In the previous entry, I gave a summary of Draper’s basic argument to this effect. One thing that was noticeably deficient about that basic argument was its failure to engage with the serious theistic attempts to explain why pain might exist; that is, with theodicies.
Draper corrects that deficit in the second half of his article. This entry tries to summarise his efforts.
Theodicies and Theism
If you recall, Draper’s argument can be stated in simple probabilistic terms:
Pr (O|T) < Pr (O|HI)
In this form, T is defined in fairly bland terms as being the claim that there exists an omniscient, omnipotent and morally perfect creator. A theodicy tries to expand and refine T so that it includes claims about the moral reasons God has for allowing pain. Such expansions will be labeled “Tn”.
Draper considers three potential theodical expansions of T. Two of them have to do with free will, while the third is a variety of skeptical theism. His strategy is to show that these expansions do not raise the likelihood of O enough to defeat his original argument. Stated more formally, he tries to show:
Pr (O|Tn) is not > Pr (O|T & ~ Tn)
Let us see how well he fares in this task.
Free Will and Moral Advancement
Probably the most popular theodicies appeal to the moral value of a strong variety of free will, which we term freedom*. An act can be said to be free* if it originates in the will of the agent, if this will is not determined by antecedent conditions, and if it is a choice between genuinely open possible worlds, at least one of which would be morally wrong.
That last condition is a bit of an academic mouthful. It might make more sense if we consider an example. Imagine you are walking to work one morning and it just so happens that you come across a man whose leg has been trapped under a collapsed wall. He is crying out for help. You deliberate for a moment, aware that you are running late, but relent and help the man.
Since one of the possible worlds open to you when you were making your decision was morally wrong, and assuming your choice was not determined by other factors, your actions can be considered to be free*.
The point made by many theists is that freedom* is intrinsically valuable: that choices that are made freely* are better than those that are not. Such theists are then quick to point out that it would have been impossible for God to create a world with freedom* without there being at least some choices that led to morally evil outcomes: God cannot force us to choose good acts without undermining freedom*.
Draper says that’s all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t account for the existence of pain, which was what his argument was about. A further expansion is required.
Theists duly oblige by suggesting that pain is God’s way of achieving the right balance of good acts over bad. How so? Well it’s the divine carrot-and-stick method: pain provides the gentle nudge in the direction of the good that humans need without being inconsistent with freedom*.
That gives us the following expansion of T:
T1: God exists and one of His final ends is a favorable balance of freely* performed right actions over wrong actions. This requires the existence of pain.
What do we make of this expansion? There are some conceptual and theological difficulties with the idea of freedom*, but Draper ignores them. He grants that Pr (T1|Theism) is high.
But granting this, T1 does not raise the probability of T enough to defeat the original argument. The problem is twofold. First, pain does not only influence humans to perform morally good actions, it also influences us to perform morally bad actions. Second, it would not seem that an impressive balance of good over evil is being achieved by this policy.
Both of these facts are more surprising if we accept T1, not less.
Free Will and Moral Responsibility
The second possible advantage of free will has to do with its ability to increase the importance of our moral decision-making. A moral decision is one upon which the presence or absence of something of great value depends. An example might be a decision which could either bring about or help to avoid great suffering.
By not interfering in such decisions, God increases our control over how valuable the world is. This gives us the following expansion of theism:
T2: God exists, and one of His final ends is for humans to have the freedom* to make very important moral decisions.
Draper assumes that this is conceptually and theologically coherent. And he accepts that it might account for the pain that results from moral decision-making. But what about the pain that is not attributable to moral decision-making?
Here, we run into a rather remarkable proposal from Richard Swinburne.
Swinburne argues that this non-moral pain is necessary if humans are to have genuine freedom* over serious moral matters. He reasons that if God told us directly which decisions to make, it would compromise our freedom* to bring about great suffering. This is because if God revealed his existence in such an obvious manner, people would feel obliged to do as he says.
So he has to do it in an indirect manner. Which means we must learn how serious our decisions are through personal experience or observation. And since we cannot learn everything from personal experience, the observation of non-moral pain is the only way.
Draper identifies three problems with Swinburne’s argument:
- It does not explain the need for pain of which we have no knowledge.
- It does not account for the sheer volume and magnitude of non-moral pain.
- Several theists (e.g. Eleanore Stump) have argued that God could let us know how our decisions lead to great suffering, without letting us know of his existence. For example, Stump proposes that God could send us vivid, message-laden dreams that do not compel us to believe in his existence.
Draper goes further and says that there are several observations we have made that are more surprising on T2 than they would be on a non-specific form of theism.
He points out that God is often analogised with a good parent. Indeed, this is usually done to prop-up a theodicy. But as Draper argues, a good parent would allow us to gradually grow into an awareness of our responsibility. For example, they would only allow us to drive the car when they thought we were able to appreciate the significance of it.
God does not appear to have done the same. Think about it: would a good parent really give a virulent, racist, blood-mythicist like Hitler the responsibility to make decisions of such extreme moral weight? Would he or she really give the him the keys to the gas chambers?
On the whole then, T2 cannot undermine Draper’s original argument.
The “Infinite Intellect” Defence
The final theodical crack of the whip is the appeal to God’s omniscience. The claim here is that God allows pain to exist for reasons that are inaccessible and inscrutable to human beings.
T3: God exists and has a vast amount of knowledge about good and evil and how they are related that humans do not have.
We can take it that T3 is obviously true since part of T’s definition was omniscience. So this means that the Pr (O|T3) = Pr (O|T).
And therein lies the rub. For while it might be true that God has a reason for O, we have no antecedent reason to expect O to obtain. And furthermore, the hypothesis of indifference (HI) already accounts for O.
So again this theodicy does not undermine the original argument: HI is still more probable than T.
In this entry we have seen how three popular theodicies do nothing to restore our confidence in T. In the final entry, we will see whether there are any other escape routes for the theist.