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Arguing About Evil: Two Kinds of Argument

Part of the Arguing About Evil series.

The problem of evil, or argument from evil, comes in two conventionally recognized forms: logical problems of evil and evidential problems of evil.

Logical problems of evil aim to show that the presence of evil is logically inconsistent with the claim that there exists a being which is omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly good. In other words, logical problems of evil argue that if evil exists, then the claim that God exists cannot be true, and vice versa. If a logical argument from evil succeeds, then theism is false. Theists respond to logical problems of evil by showing that there exists a possible reason for the existence of evil, which would show that God’s non-existence is not necessitated by the presence of evil. An example of this is Plantinga’s famous free-will defense, which we’ll look at in one of the posts in this series.

The evidential problem of evil, on the other hand, aims to show not that God’s existence given the existence of evil is impossible, but that it is very unlikely. In this case, pointing out a possible reason for the existence of evil would not work. Theists typically respond by trying to show, “with at least a fair degree of probability, what God’s actual reason for permitting evil is.” (Everitt, p. 229) Examples of these attempts include the free-will theodicy (the claim that a world with free will and evil is better than a world with no evil and no free will) and the soul-making theodicy (the claim that evil serves what can loosely be called a character-building function). A successful evidential argument from evil would not show that theism is certainly false, but only that it is implausible or improbable.

Furthermore, both kinds of the argument from evil can rely on more than just the plain fact that evil exists. According to Everitt, “Some authors… distinguish between different versions of the logical problem, and also different versions of the evidential problem according to whether the focus is on the existence of evil per se, or on the huge total amount, or on the distribution, or on the awfulness of the worst evils, etc.” (Everitt, p. 228) One can also distinguish the kinds of evil that these arguments rely on into two kinds: natural and moral evils. Moral evil typically consists of evil brought about by human activity, such as torture and other forms of cruelty, or deceit, or acting solely for personal gain. Natural evils cover the broad spectrum of evils brought about by the normal operation of the laws of nature, such as disease and natural disasters.

Next post, we’ll look at an example of a logical problem of evil.

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Some More Books

Here are some more books I’ve read. Like the last time, not all of them will be included in the bibliography.

Who Was Jesus?: A Critique of the New Testament Record, George Albert Wells – As usual, Wells is comprehensive and informative, and the only reason I won’t recommend this book – which is probably not a good reason to not recommend it – is that it is too similar to the another book I’ve recommended by the same author.

The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition, Paul Rhodes Eddy, Gregory A. Boyd – I’ve already written about this book (here and here), so it might not come as a surprise that I won’t be adding this book to the bibliography either. Aside from the issues I discussed before, it is indirect (never once addresses the historicity of a particular miracle), and I cannot be help entertain the suspicion that Eddy and Boyd made their argument by on quoting lots of favourable authorities and ignoring unfavourable ones. I’m not really qualified to judge if this is what really happened, but  there were points – such as their brief discussion of the Papias tradition – when it was noticeable that the problematic aspects were left unaddressed and even unmentioned. I probably owe this book another read, but it’s not making it into the bibliography until I’m familiar enough with the arguments and debates to be sure that nothing was left out.

When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, Stanley Schachter – The first book to make it into the bibliography. When Prophecy Fails is a social and psychological study of a group that predicted the end of the world and the reaction of that group following the failure of their prophecy. The authors discuss the conditions under which, they argue, rationalization following disconfirmation occurs and a propensity to proselytize develops.  In describing the beliefs of that group that was the object of its study, When Prophecy Fails also gives one a somewhat disturbing view of the things people can end up believing.

Historical Evidence and Argument, David Henige – Henige believes that skepticism and doubt should be prioritized when dealing with historical sources or when engaging in historiography, and provides hosts of examples in which he argues overconfidence in conclusions and interpretations of facts, and willingness to trust historical sources and other kinds of apparent facts, led to embarrassing problems for historians. Strongly recommended.

A Few Notes and Questions About Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend (Part 2)

Readers of my last post will know that I am concerned that Christian apologists – a term that probably accurately describes Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory Boyd, authors of The Jesus Legend – may not give naturalism enough credit. Readers may remember that Eddy and Boyd believe that biblical historical criticism is not critical enough, that, in short, it takes its naturalistic assumptions for granted, and these, in turn, arbitrarily eliminate supernatural hypotheses and explanations as potential answers.  I will eventually write more about naturalism’s relation to Christian apologetics. Today, I will focus on a second question raised by my reading of The Jesus Legend and the argument made in the book, one that relates to supernatural explanations. The question, to get straight to the point, is this:

  • What informs the content of our supernatural explanations?

This might seem like a strange question, since questions about supernatural explanations usually involve the possibility of the supernatural or their explanatory power. This question was prompted by a specific example used by Eddy and Boyd in their book, and which I mentioned in my last post, “demonization” or “demon possession”. Eddy and Boyd write:

“To the thinking of most who witness phenomena like these – and the authors of this work count themselves among them – attempts to explain some of these phenomena in strictly natural terms are implausible, to say the least. The same could be said about a host of other supernatural phenomena that ‘present human experience’ includes – if we step outside the shallow pool of experience represented by the naturalistic Western worldview.” (Kindle Location, 1103)

I pointed out in my last post that, despite these events seeming supernatural to “most” people who witness them, Eddy and Boyd do not dispute that “some, if not the majority” of these reports of the supernatural can be explained in naturalistic terms. (Kindle Location, 1108). Indeed, they are careful to write only of “reports” and “claims” of the supernatural, rather than point to a specific example of the supernatural which refutes ontological naturalism as a true metaphysical description of reality. Nor do they disavow a preference for naturalistic explanations. They do, however, appear to believe that demon possession actually occurs.

I initially was only interested in why “demon possession”, (as in, a person becomes possessed by a malevolent spirit) is thought to be the best explanation for certain kinds of behavior. My interest became somewhat more nuanced as I read more of The Jesus Legend, seeing that Eddy and Boyd weren’t directly arguing that the resurrection was the best explanation for the evidence, but that the explanations used by legendary Jesus theorists didn’t adequately explain their presentations of the evidence, leaving only the explanation preferred by the Christian apologist to fill the gap. But that doesn’t mean that particular supernatural explanation is a good explanation, nor that it is better than other supernatural explanations one can think of.

There is no indication in The Jesus Legend that Eddy and Boyd have considered alternative supernatural theories that explain what they call demon possession (and the same applies to the resurrection, if am I remembering correctly), which leaves me wondering whether these explanations are dependent for their content on readily available examples of the supernatural. If reports of demon possession are as widespread as Eddy and Boyd claim they are, and if most of these reports can be explained in naturalistic way (as Eddy and Boyd also suggest), why should not one think that existing superstition is influencing the kinds of supernatural explanations we give for events that are difficult to explain? Would any of the symptoms of demon possession lead us to infer that a malevolent spirit had entered the victim’s body if there was not already an association between demon possession and those symptoms in our culture? What if those symptoms are equally well explained by the existence of a supernatural bacterium?

I don’t know, and I don’t expect I’ll have the answers soon. It’s not something The Jesus Legend covers, despite being a book that purportedly concerns itself with methodology. Perhaps, eventually, I’ll come across a work of apologetics that doesn’t take for granted the possibility of other supernatural explanations.

A Few Notes and Questions About Eddy and Boyd’s The Jesus Legend (Part 1)

This week, I finished reading Paul R. Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd’s The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. In this book, Eddy and Boyd draw together many general observations to argue that skeptics who maintain that the Synoptic Gospels mostly or entirely consists of legendary elements are incorrect. One of these general observations involves what Eddy and Boyd regard as naturalistic presuppositions held by these skeptical scholars. According to Eddy and Boyd, these naturalistic presuppositions prevent these scholars from fairly assessing the texts, leading them to disqualify conclusions and explanations which invoke the supernatural not on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of prior belief.

This is a criticism that appears to be fairly common among Christian apologists and writers. One example in the books I’ve covered before can be found in William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith. (For example, “If we begin by presupposing naturalism, then of course what we wind up with is a purely natural Jesus. This reconstructed, naturalistic Jesus is not based on evidence, but definition.” (Craig, p. 278)) Obviously, insofar as those scholars maintain what Eddy and Boyd dub an ‘unequivocal naturalism’ – which is a presupposed naturalism that continuously explains away evidence of the supernatural – I think they (and Craig) are correct to point out that such a presupposition could function as an impediment to the truth, so long as it actually skewing the conclusions of those scholars.

It is difficult for me to say if this is the case. Eddy and Boyd discuss many other points (such as the reliability of oral traditions) which have little to do with naturalistic presuppositions, and more with potential ignorance of other academic fields (assuming Eddy and Boyd accurately represent those fields).

In any case, Eddy and Boyd believe that if one allows “the Western naturalistic assumptions to be called into question, and thus if one remains open to the genuine historical possibility that the Synoptic portrait(s) of Jesus is substantially rooted in history, one will find there are compelling grounds for concluding that this portrait is historically plausible – that is more probable than not that this general portrait is rooted in history.” (Kindle Location 249-260). These naturalistic assumptions, Eddy and Boyd argue, are “to a large extent, what leads legendary-Jesus theorists to conclude that the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus is not rooted in history.” (Kindle Location 249).

It was not clear that these remarks would serve as a kind of introduction to the rest of the book, in which the authors would proceed to show how exactly these presuppositions were distorting the results of legendary-Jesus theorists, or if they were simply an expression of a potentially misguided optimism that thinks, just because miracles are admitted as possible explanations, most of the work is complete. I’ve encountered this attitude in Craig’s Reasonable Faith, when he wrote, “In my own case, the virgin birth was a stumbling block to my coming to faith – I simply could not believe such a thing. But when I reflected on the fact that God had created the entire Universe, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be too difficult for him to create the genetic material necessary for a virgin birth!” (Craig, p. 280)

The obvious objection, in this case, is that a commitment to naturalism is not the only stumbling block for believing in the virgin birth, and the same may apply to other aspects of Eddy and Boyd’s case. Now, that I’m finished with the book, I’m still not entirely sure what to think about it. I don’t know if it should go into the bibliography. On one hand, it could act as a counterpoint to G. A. Wells’s Cutting Jesus Down to Size, but, on the other hand, its arguments feel too thin. For the most part, Eddy and Boyd stick to arguing about general features of the Gospels or their context (such as how resistant were the Jews to non-Jewish beliefs, how reliable oral tradition is, and so on), without touching upon any single episode – supernatural or otherwise – and arguing for its historicity. They usually do this by citing many authorities that agree with them, providing very brief summaries of the arguments they’re objecting to, and sometimes, I suspect, by ignoring objections to certain parts of their case. (For instance, they favorably adduce the Papias tradition, without considering problems that other scholars have pointed out. They merely delegate this to cited authorities.)

And, it seems that to some extent, they expect the miraculous to automatically and adequately explain what the claim cannot be explained naturally.

In any case, reading this book has prompted a few questions which I hope will be answered one way or another as I read more and more. Some of these questions might seem strange or stupid, but they are at least indicative of my current wonderings. The first question, which I will discuss in this post, is below.

  • Do Eddy and Boyd (and Christian apologists in general) give naturalism enough credit?

I find it somewhat irksome that the most of the apologetic works I’ve read so far evoke naturalism as a presupposition on the part of the skeptics, destroy it, and then move on, never mentioning it again. I’ve yet to find one serious defense of ontological naturalism in these works, even as part of an attempt to demonstrate its failures. One might charge me with looking for defenses of naturalism in the wrong places, but I’m almost always struck by the ease with which it is set aside in these works. The most I’ve seen from Eddy and Boyd is this little paragraph:

 “Given the empirical observation that the world generally operates by natural laws of cause and effect, it is reasonable when investigating history to first look for natural explanations for events and to exercise caution when entertaining explanations that involve appeals to the supernatural. And, given this empirical observation, it is certainly reasonable to prefer natural explanations over supernatural explanations, all other things being equal.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location, 770-782)

I have no quarrel with this and it is gratifying to see. But the possibility that the world does not only generally operate naturally, but rather, that it always does so, warrants a more serious consideration (at least in my unqualified opinion). One can easily see the above empirical observation Eddy and Boyd point out being used as a confirmatory piece of a posteriori evidence for naturalism, refreshingly represented as a hypothesis, rather than a presupposition. I have no idea how good a justification this would be, and I’m sure I’ll find this argument being discussed as I read more and more, but, at first glance, it seems far stronger a position (and thus more charitable) than the mere presupposition of naturalism. It also has important implications for Eddy and Boyd’s entire book as well as the assumptions they bring to it. (These, in their own words, include a belief in a “personal Creator God” and his supernatural interventions or acts in the world and are not tackled in any way in the book. (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location, 256-267)) I think such an approach would entail seriously engaging with ontological naturalism as a potentially true metaphysical description of the world, with all its concomitant implications.

At one point, in order to bring out the shortsightedness of those who would use absence of miracles in the present-day world to argue for the absence of miracles in the world in the past, Eddy and Boyd adduce the example of “demonization”, or demon possession. It is, in their words, a “commonly reported cross-cultural, supernatural phenomenon”, both in the past and present. (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1084). I’m not entirely clear if they find it problematic for those who only presuppose naturalism, or if they also believe it poses difficulties for those who also argue for it. Either way, they point out that the demonized exhibit traits which “are hard to explain on a strictly naturalistic terms.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1084). The implication of this and the commonness of the phenomenon are meant to make naturalists pause and reconsider. As Eddy and Boyd write, “To the thinking of most who witness phenomena like these – and the authors of this work count themselves among them – attempts to explain some of these phenomena in strictly natural terms are implausible, to say the least.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1908). This is, as I see it, Eddy and Boyd wedging a foot in the door to stop naturalists from closing it on them without considering them. Insofar as this is their only intention, I think they have succeeded.

But they add, “We do not wish to dispute that some, if not the majority, of these reports may be explained in naturalistic terms.” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1108). In making this necessary concession, I think that Eddy and Boyd have also stopped the door from being closed on naturalism. The problem that faces them is that they do not have a single undisputed example of a supernatural event; they can only refer to reports of them, many of which they admit can be explained naturally. And thus, the possibility remains open that all of the purportedly miraculous events one adduces are not, in fact, miraculous events. In some cases, there may be no events (and the reports we have are false or legendary), and the others may be class of events that are consistently or systematically misinterpreted by human beings (owing to any number of factors and their combinations). When we concede that the majority of these kinds of events are actually natural events, we are enforcing the idea the all of them are natural events. Eddy and Boyd rhetorically ask:

“But what justification is there for assuming that all such reports of the supernatural can be reductively explained in naturalistic terms?” (Eddy and Boyd, Kindle Location 1119).

There is none, at least for the kind of assumption that would not be dropped when shown certain kinds of evidence. But I think the above concession is more than enough to justify adopting naturalism as a useful working hypothesis and a potentially true one. The knowledge that most of these experiences are not, in fact, taken as supernatural experiences by believers and non-believers alike, would, at the very least, undermine my confidence even in my personal experiences of what I take to be supernatural.

Some Books

I haven’t posted anything for over a month, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten about this blog. I’ve been reading philosophy of religion and biblical historical criticism (more of this than the former, as will soon be evident). Some of the books I’ve read have made it into the bibliography, because I consider them potentially worthwhile reading for others. They’re not all layman-friendly, but some (like Richard Swinburne’s The Existence of God) have versions intended for less scholarly audiences. I tend not to read these, so I can’t honestly recommend them, but it might be advisable to pick these up if their longer counterparts seem to be too difficult.

Here are the books I’ve finished and some others I’m still reading. It’s difficult to sum up everything about the books, but I’ll try to explain why they made the bibliography (or not).

Theism and Explanation, Gregory W. Dawes – The most accessible book-length work in philosophy of religion I’ve looked at. It deals with questions related to supernatural explanations (such as the one argued for in Letters to a Doubting Thomas), questions like whether these kind of explanations can be good explanation and the requirements for good explanations. I strongly recommend it (along with Swinburne’s The Existence of God.)

The Existence of God, Richard Swinburne – I remember reading somewhere that Swinburne is responsible for the strongest case made for the God. I don’t know if that is true, being in no position to evaluate this book, but I find this kind of argumentation (which posits God as the best explanation for an observed fact/s) to be appealing. It’s less accessible than Theism and Explanation, and requires careful reading.

The Evidence for Jesus, James D. G. Dunn – This didn’t make the bibliography. It is one of those books aimed at popular audiences, which I probably shouldn’t have bothered with in the first place. I was put off repeatedly by assertions on the part of the author (example: “Clearly it is the same story in each case, and in each case we have no reason to doubt that the story derives from memories of Jesus’s ministry” (p. 13)) which I thought needed to be fleshed out.

Jesus is Dead, Robert M. Price – This is another book that didn’t make it into the bibliography. Price takes the time in this book to deal with various apologetic arguments related to the resurrection. Two things I like about Price is his style – which is often amusing – and how willing to experiment and speculate he seems. Unfortunately, the book lacks citations and makes it somewhat difficult to follow-up on its arguments.

The Case Against the Case for Christ, Robert M. Price – Like Strobel’s Case for Christ, this book is aimed at a popular audience. Unlike Strobel’s Case for Christ, Price’s book is more interested in showing us the breadth of scholarship (whereas Strobel seems to stack the deck with the authorities he likes) and using it to show how selective and unquestioning Strobel was. Although this book isn’t going to be in the list, I’d recommend it to anyone who has read Strobel’s Case for Christ and is looking for a critique of it (or needs to know that one exists, at leasts).

Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels, Clarke W. Owens – This was more of an impulse buy for me, since I’d been seeing references to literary criticism of the New Testament and the Bible, and coming from that background, I was really curious about the form it takes when it engages with the Bible. Although Owens makes a number of interesting points, I won’t be recommending this book, not at least until I’ve reread it (and who knows when that might be).

Cutting Jesus Down to Size: What Higher Criticism Has Achieved and Where It Leaves Christianity, G. A. Wells – This is the third book to earn a place in the bibliography. It is difficult to sum up n a couple of sentences, as it is rather long and covers so much ground in so much detail.  (But it is because of those features that it is highly recommended by me.)

Updates

To start with, I don’t think I will finish reviewing Reasonable Faith. I had two chapters left to blog about, but there isn’t anything worthwhile I can write about them at this point, other than summaries, and William Lane Craig’s debates on the resurrection (which can be found on Youtube) will give you a much better picture of these arguments than my summaries would. I would like to analyze these chapters in some detail, but currently I lack the requisite background knowledge to evaluate them. I’ll be able to post reviews of Letters to Doubting Thomas and The Christian Delusion very soon. These are somewhat easier to review, but I doubt there will be much in terms of analysis on my part.

I’m also setting up a Bibliography page. This will host books I consider worth reading, if you’re interested in religion, philosophy of religion, Christianity and other related topics. Some of the books will be easier than others to read and I’ll point these out. Note, that not everything I read will immediately make into the bibliography, and there will probably be books that won’t make the cut.

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

In my last post, I said I would look at William Lane Craig’s consideration of a common skeptical slogan, which is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (henceforth, ‘ECREE’). I suspect Craig has frequently encountered skeptics who misuse it, and given that in Reasonable Faith he is arming Christians with apologetic arguments, it makes sense for him to deal with these misunderstandings. In Chapter 6, he deals with some interpretations of ECREE, finally writing:

“What the skeptic seems to be saying by his slogan is that in order to believe rationally in a miraculous event, you must have an enormous amount of evidence.” (p. 273)

I agree with Craig that this interpretation of ECREE is incorrect, but there is still a correct interpretation of it, which I think remains useful. Note, I am not saying that Craig does not point this out. Before dealing with incorrect understandings of it, he writes:

“The only plausible sense in which the slogan is true is that in order to establish the occurrence of an event which has a very low intrinsic probability, then the evidence would also have to have a very low intrinsic probability…” (p. 273)

But he does sometimes give the impression that he rejects the slogan wholesale. Consider what he writes about an argument made by Stephen Law:

“This sounds so commonsensical, doesn’t it? But in fact it is demonstrably false. Probability theorists studying what sort of evidence it would take to establish a highly improbable event came to realize that if you just weigh the improbability of the event against the reliability of the testimony, we’d have to be sceptical of many commonly accepted claims. Rather what’s crucial is the probability that we should have the evidence we do if the extraordinary event had not occurred. This can easily offset any improbability of the event itself. In the case of the resurrection of Jesus, for example, this means that we must also ask, “What is the probability of the facts of the empty tomb, the post-mortem appearances, and the origin of the disciples’ belief in Jesus’ resurrection, if the resurrection had not occurred?” It is highly, highly, highly, improbable that we should have that evidence if the resurrection had not occurred.” (LINK)

In a 2008 debate with Keith Parsons, Craig also said, regarding ECREE:

“This is a watchword of the free thought movement today that I always hear repeated. But when I think about it, I can think of almost no justification for that principle. I do not think it is true that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” (My transcript, approximately 40 minutes into the debate, during Craig’s first rebuttal)

He also points out that it doesn’t take extraordinary evidence to show that someone is alive or dead, and that to demonstrate that Jesus resurrected, all it would take is evidence that he was dead, and evidence that he was alive (after he was dead). This is, in a way, correct, but at the same time, I don’t see how this isn’t the sort of extraordinary evidence a more viable interpretation of ECREE demands (if that evidence is too improbable on our background evidence if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead). So, while I can say that Craig treated ECREE charitably in Reasonable Faith by pointing out its strongest interpretation, he, at the very least, does not seem to think skeptics generally mean it this way (which could easily be true).