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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Simulation Hypothesis and the problem of natural evil, part III

by David Kyle Johnson

[This post belongs to a four-part series that Rationally Speaking is running with one of our podcast guests, Prof. David Kyle Johnson of the Department of Philosophy at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Kyle's philosophical specializations include logic, metaphysics, epistemology and philosophy of religion. His publications include “God, Fatalism, and Temporal Ontology” (Religious Studies) and “Natural Evil and the Simulation Hypothesis” (Philo). He also teaches and has published extensively on the interaction between philosophy and popular culture, including a textbook (Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture) and two edited volumes in the Wiley/Blackwell series (on Christopher Nolan’s Inception and NBC’s Heroes). He maintains the blog Plato on Pop with William Irwin for Psychology Today, and hosts a podcast.] [go to part I or part II]

In my first entry I defined the simulation hypothesis and showed why it is more likely than many think. In my next entry I showed how the logical problem of natural evil is often misunderstood and how it should be understood. I will now show that theists have failed to solve this problem.

As I argued in my last entry, the logical problem of natural evil, as it presents itself to the modern academic theist, is a seeming logical incompatibility between these three propositions:

(1) God (an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent being) exists.
(3) God is the creator and designer of the physical universe, including the laws that govern it.
(4) Natural disasters, and the evil they cause, are a direct byproduct of the laws that govern our universe.
[for prop (2), see previous post]

One could be like Pat Robertson and deny premise (4), and instead make claims such as the Haitian earthquake was a result of the Haitians making a pact with the devil. But for sensible minded theists, trying to keep in step with scientific knowledge, such solutions simply won’t do. Denying (4) is not really an option. But for the theist, denying (1) or (3) is not an option either — hence the problem.

Theists have tried other solutions. Some have suggested that the physical laws are outside of God’s control: there was no other kind of universe God could have created. But, by definition, everything that is logically possible is within God’s power and, by definition, the physical laws restrict only what is physically possible — not what is logically possible. Besides, the logical possibility of a world without laws that necessitate natural disasters is built right into most theists’ doctrinal system via the doctrine of heaven. Although not all theists believe in heaven, none think it is logically impossible.

Others, like Richard Swinburne, have argued that — all things considered — natural evil isn’t really bad. It provides, for example, opportunities for compassion, generosity and courage that we wouldn’t otherwise have, and that is why God authors them. Few theists, however, are satisfied with such answers. Surely there are other logically possible, less evil, ways for God to provide opportunities for generosity, compassion and courage. And, although compassion, generosity, and courage are nice things, they unquestionably don’t outweigh the evil that natural disasters produce. Certainly, no member of Doctor’s Without Borders has ever been thankful the disaster to which they are responding occurred; no matter how courageous and compassionate they are, they would rather the disaster never had happened. If we found that natural disasters were actually the work of a Bond type super villain with a natural disaster causing mega-laser, and he thought he was doing us all a favor by providing us with opportunities for compassion and courage, we would lock him away in an insane asylum — we would not think he had a good point.

Others have attempted something called skeptical theism. Skeptical theism was developed as a way out of the evidential problem of evil. Skeptical theists argue that just because we can’t see a reason for God to allow evil, that is not enough to think that there is no such reason. God may have motives beyond our ken. Consequently, seemingly unjustified evil can’t count as evidence against God’s existence, they argue. The literature on skeptical theism is vast, but there are two basic problems with it. First, even if God may have reasons beyond our ken for authoring natural evil, the existence of natural evil still reduces the probability of God’s existence — no matter how you plug the probabilities into Bayes’ theorem, that is the result. (I have a paper that demonstrates exactly this currently under review at Sophia.) Further, if I am unable to objectively determine that the 2004 Indian tsunami was an objectively bad event, because there may have been a reason to allow it, then all my objective moral judgments are subject to doubt. I can’t claim to know that the holocaust was an objectively bad thing if I am forced to seriously consider the possibility of “greater goods” that it might have brought about that are beyond my ability to detect. More importantly, however, applying this solution to the logical problem of natural evil I have raised amounts to suggesting that God may know of a solution — a reason that (1), (3) and (4), are logically compatible — that is beyond our ken. If that were allowed as a move, no argument about logical incompatibility could ever get off the ground. Every reductio-ad-absurdum objection would be rendered a moot point.

Not many theists endorse any of these solutions, but that doesn’t keep them from believing. Why? Because, they insist, they already have reason to believe in God — reason enough that trumps the threat that the logical problem of natural evil poses to his existence. What kind of evidence? Sometimes they cite theistic arguments like the cosmological or teleological argument. Most often they will, like Plantinga, appeal to a mystical experience — the sensus divinitatis which supposedly reveals God’s existence to the believer directly. In Warranted Christian Belief, Plantinga claims that if knowledge of God’s existence has been revealed to him in such a way — nay, even if he merely believes that it has been so revealed — no evidence could ever justifiably challenge his theistic belief.

There are numerous problems here. The arguments for God’s existence are fraught with logical fallacies, and even if successful could only point to an amorphous “first cause” or “designer” — not the Christian tri-omni (all good, powerful and knowing) God. And Plantinga seems to have things exactly backwards in thinking that personal experience can trump evidence. Every basic critical thinking textbook will tell you the exact opposite: personal experience, even derived from our five senses, should not be trusted when the evidence shows it is mistaken. Our senses are notoriously unreliable and lead us astray all the time; I may have thought I saw a ghost, but if all the evidence points to the non-existence of ghosts, I should conclude that I was mistaken. And if I can’t trust my five senses in the face of counter evidence, how much more should I doubt something as vague and subjective (and only assumed to exist) like the sensus divinitatis?

If, however, we set all that aside and grant theists the knowledge of God’s existence they claim by whatever means they claim, they can get around the problem of natural evil I have proposed. For example, let’s grant Plantinga that the sensus divinitatis bestows upon him knowledge of God’s existence and tri-omni-properties. That would allow Plantinga to retain justified belief in God even though he can’t solve the logical problem of natural evil. To see why, consider an analogy.

Suppose my neighbor Caleb has been accused of the cold blooded murder of an infant, and the evidence against him is completely convincing. However, through a psychic connection that I know guarantees knowledge in this case, I have looked into Caleb’s mind and seen that he is perfectly sane and that he is literally incapable of committing a morally heinous action. Consequently, I need not explain away the evidence against him to justify my belief that he is innocent; since I already know he can’t commit a morally heinous action, I know there must be an explanation for why it seems that he did despite the fact that he did not. Likewise, if I already have enough evidence to know that God exists, I need not provide an explanation for the evidence against his existence to justify my belief that he does; I know there is an explanation, even if I can’t come up with one. Thus, if theists truly do have the evidence and knowledge they profess to have regarding God’s existence, theistic belief can still be rational even though theists have not provided a satisfactory theodicy for natural evil.

As we shall see, however, this solution comes at a price — the knowledge granted to theists commits them to something they will want to avoid. In my next entry I will fulfill my promise and show why such theists must believe that we live in a computer simulation.


  1. " - why such theists must believe that we live in a computer simulation."
    Why wouldn't they instead believe that their God had computational powers in a deterministic universe?

    1. You'll see next post. Perhaps you won't have the same wonder once you see the argument.

    2. I wonder that you can show me what they must believe, as opposed to what they mistakenly believe already that makes more sense to a lot of them. Computers take away the purposive nature of evil, and that goes against the human instincts from which their Gods arose. On the other hand they don't mind wielding determinism for a purpose, and have easily handled what to us (or me) is a logical contradiction of goals.
      But hey, if you can do what you say, have at it.

  2. I have encountered many critical thinking theists who believe that natural evil is a by-product of this 'fallen' world, where "the fall" of course stems from Adam and Eve's choice to sin. This is a deal-breaker for me. Once people start invoking the faith card I let them know it and wish them well.

    1. so they think things started of good then once the fall happened it kinda corrupted the world?

    2. Yeah, that is the line they take. They say that Adam and Eve's sin corrupted a perfect world--before that, natural disasters were impossible. This evokes a very vague notion of "corruption" that somehow "imperfects" the world. No academic theist takes this seriously, so I didn't mention it here. There are numerous problems with it.

      (1) It relies on a literal interpretation of Genesis, which is bunk.

      (2) Is is complete vague and amorphous--there are so specifics. Somehow "sin" magically "corrupts" the world. What exactly does this mean, and how did it happen? How exactly did Adam and Eve eating fruit change the laws of physics?

      (3) It provides no excuse. Adam and Eve's sin wouldn't change God's character--he's still all good and wouldn't cause evil if he could avoid it. So, even if God changed the laws in response to Adam and Eve's sin, that is not an act of an all loving being. It's not something even the most minimally decent person would do.

      (4) Even if he does it as punishment, he is not all loving or morally perfect. (a) It's not fair to punish generation of humans for one person's sin (b) killing billions of people in horrendous ways is not a just punishment for "disobedience via fruit consumption." It's like the death penalty for jaywalking.

      So, if you want something to say to people who make this argument--there you go.

  3. I was watching SNL this weekend and realized:

    "Adam and Eve's sin and so now we have natural disasters because they corrupted the world"

    has about the same explanatory power as:

    "There was a big war, and now cats shoot lasers out of their eyes because of all the radiation."

    And I realized that Steven Spielberg can be pretty funny.

  4. "God allows evil to happen in order to bring a greater good therefrom." - St. Thomas Aquinas

  5. Alastair,

    and that explains things how, exactly?

  6. It explains that what we call evil may be serving a greater good.

  7. Also,the essay here fails to take the "free will" theodicy into account. If free will is true, then chance is at play.

  8. I've come up with a counter argument to Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism called the Evolutionary Argument Against God or the EAAG. See below:

    1. If god chose to use evolution as the method of creating human beings and all other forms of life, then god knowingly chose the method that requires the greatest amount of suffering.
    2. If humans are the product of gradual evolution guided by god, humans must have acquired souls at some point during the process.
    3. Once human beings had souls, they could be rewarded in an afterlife for the suffering they endured while they were alive.
    4. If higher level primates are capable of third order pain awareness (knowing they are experiencing pain) then our pre-human hominid ancestors did too and they did not have souls.
    5. Therefore god chose to create humans using a method that knowingly would involve conscious suffering that was not logically necessary.
    6. An all-good, perfectly moral god who is incapable of unwarranted cruelty would not create beings that could consciously suffer in a way that was not logically necessary.
    7. Therefore, the traditional notion of god who is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good does not exist.

    Let’s go over the premises to see what objections we might find.

    Premise one is relatively uncontroversial to most theistic evolutionists, although they certainly wouldn’t like my choice of wording. Some theists like William Lane Craig think of god like an artist who takes pleasure in the method for creating life using evolution. Another theory is that god chose to use evolution as a punishment for original sin. Regardless, god still willingly chose to create man using millions of other species merely as a means, and many of those species contained sentient beings who suffered tremendous ordeals. It seems odd to me that god would choose a method of bringing about man that requires millions of years of suffering.

    For premise two, even if you believe that fully rational humans appeared at once in a single generation as some theistic evolutionists do, we still have enough evidence that our hominid ancestors and cousins like Neanderthals had language capability and that means they certainly had higher functioning cognitive rational faculties than modern day chimps and gorillas. So they were capable of consciously suffering and knowing they were suffering.

    If premise 4 is true it logically follows.

    Premise 5 suggests that god is just a mere utilitarian who uses millions of other species as a means to his end goal of creating human beings, but what makes god different from other utilitarians is that since evolution requires massive amounts of suffering, he actually chooses the greater of two evils rather than the lesser of two evils! It’s kind of odd since he’s supposed to be morally perfect.

    If this argument is successful this means theists like William Lane Craig and Alvin Pantinga have to accept that god is intentionally cruel and capable of committing unwarranted suffering. Which means of course he cannot exist!

    What do you think?