Debates: The Horner-Triplett Debate: Mr. Triplett’s Opening Remarks
So I’m the local neighborhood atheist. And I think that the theists here tonight should worry too much about the fact that they have a local atheist but they had to fly in Mr. Horner from British Columbia. I think that in spite of the appearance of that we atheists are still quite out-numbered, but I’m glad to be given some time tonight.
Atheism is the belief that God does not exist. And I’m going to be defending that view and arguing to that effect. The atheist as such is not necessarily the same thing as an agnostic. An agnostic is somebody who will believe that "We just don’t know one way or the other whether there is a God." And I’m going to be defending the stronger view that God does not exist, although I will say this. I am not sure that I know that there is no God. What it seems to me is the case is something like this. The evidence looks like it weighs in favor of the nonexistence of God. Whether you can often have something that is strong evidence or some evidence in favor of a proposition that is not yet knowledge or certainty. And I’m going to be going for, not necessarily a proof that God does not exist, but strong evidence, or so it seems to me.
Before I present this argument and before I discuss the logical issues, I want to say something about the psychology of belief. The concept of God is a very grand and noble one. And I think it was something that was a great achievement of the human intellect to come upon. Obviously as an atheist I don’t believe it was discovered so much as invented. But I believe it is a great and noble idea. And the power of that idea is something that I think we need to take into account, before we look at the pure logic of the arguments pro and con.
Look at, I mean just consider the power of the argument for a minute. I think that it’s deeply psychologically compelling to believe that there is a God. It feels so good and so reassuring to be told that there is this loving, supremely powerful personal being who cares about you, who can answer your prayers, and grant you eternal life, who can guarantee that the outcome of the human story will be a happy one. It feels so comforting to feel one is placed under the protection of this magnificent being, especially when you think about how moved you can be in the setting of a great cathedral or listening to a great musical sacred work, say the St. Matthew Passion of Johann Sebastian Bach. There is great power and awe and passion to move in this idea.
The danger in that is that it will, that one will believe in God just because either because it feels so good and reassuring, or because it’s so wrenching and frightening to face the possibility that there might not be anything to the story. It’s so reassuring to believe in God that I’m not at all surprised that humanity has come to conceive this idea, and having conceived it, to embrace it so fervently. But it’s not rational to believe in something just because it would be so wonderful if it were true, or because so much of how you conceive of yourself and your life rides on it. It would be wonderful if you could plant seeds in the ground and have them sprout thousand dollar bills. But you would be sorely deceived if you based your life on that belief.
So what I want to ask you all to do when you look at these arguments tonight is to weigh them without letting your desire for one outcome or the other influence your ability to objectively reason about these matters. And this applies to those as well who might be psychologically inclined to reject belief in God, perhaps because of some need to rebel against authority, or out of anger against parents and society. What I urge you all to do is to try to honestly assess how you’re psychologically disposed, one way or the other, and to try to take account of that. If this is an important issue, perhaps the most important issue of all, then we all owe it to ourselves to give it the most thorough and rational reflection we possibly can.
And that means not just coming here tonight and thinking this will settle the matter, but perhaps using this as the starting point for your own searching and examination. If you’ve not seriously considered up ’til now the reasoning pro and con for God’s existence, then just consider this an introduction to the topic, not a resolution of it. For example, in my Intro to Philosophy classes, I will spend sometimes two and a half or three weeks on one single argument for God’s existence, so obviously (and I’m sure Mr. Horner would agree with me here), we’re not going to be able to cover all the bases tonight. There’s no easy way to settle this question. You can’t come in here and say, "Well, I’m going to solve, for all the rest of my life, the question of whether God exists or not, and then I’ll go listen to the ball game or have a good time." Life just isn’t that easy. It requires your thoughtful reflection, not just here tonight, but afterwards.
I do have, the argument I’m going to put up on the overhead here, I have a hand-out that most of you should have gotten, if you didn’t, you should be able to receive it from an usher at some point. It’s called the problem of evil. And I just leave that for you because we can’t cover all this in one brief evening, so you can have something to reflect on from the atheist point of view. Before I say anything about the argument itself in its detail, I do want to say this about who’s really got the hardest job here. I really do feel that Mr. Horner has the hardest job in the following sense. He believes in something that I don’t. He’s got to give us all some powerful reason for thinking that thing does exist because it’s easy to say, "There’s no such thing," when we don’t seem to see one, when there’s no obvious evidence of one, it’s not a visible thing like a table or a chair, and in spite of all that, Mr. Horner I presume will want to say there is this extra-important thing in the universe, and here’s the reason why. Now I don’t know what reasons he’s going to put up here tonight, but my past experience with the ones I’ve encountered so far is often, not complete rejection of the arguments, but kind of baffled puzzlement. Some of them are so complicated that I really can’t understand them one way or the other. And if that’s the result, that’s no reason for belief. If you can’t understand it. Another thing that often happens with me is, when I see some of these arguments, I say, "Well, I can kind of see why that might be the case, but I can also see why it might not be the case, either," and my mind just starts boggling at some of these issues. And my intuitions are not always very clear. If you don’t have clear intuitions about the positive force of his arguments, then I don’t think he’s made his case, and that is really what’s at issue.
I would also suggest I think it’s very important for the theist to feel and truly believe, not just that this is a pleasant and good belief to have, but that there’s really strong evidence for it. Consider this example. If I’m out to buy a big pen, it doesn’t much matter in the cosmic scheme of things what the character of the person who designed that pen was, or who sold it, and I’m not going to go into deep inquiries about that sort of issue. If I’m buying an automobile, I think about that a little more. You want to know the quality of the manufacturer and do a little bit of research. Now, suppose you are about to be operated on for brain surgery. You would really want to know if that was a good doctor, especially if some people believed or some people gave you some evidence to think he wasn’t all that good of a doctor. Then you’d really want a second opinion. You’d want to talk to people. You’d want to check credentials, all right. My suggestion is the issue of God and whether God exists is far more important to you than the brain surgeon, as important as that is. If you’re going to base your life on that belief, it is imperative if you’re to be realistic about the sorts of things you believe, to give that deep and thoughtful examination. Because look what turns on it: your conception of life, your conception of your place in the universe, the prospects for an afterlife for you, and so on. With those sorts of issues, it seems to me, the burden is why should we believe this. Obviously, it would be a wonderful thing if it’s true, but is there compelling evidence? That’s what my challenge to Mr. Horner is tonight, not so much arguments pro and con, but I’d like to see him prove it.
I do, however, have my own "proof." I call it a proof because it’s an argument form. I will again say that I do not know this conclusion to be true, but it looks to me like a fairly strong argument against God’s existence.
I prefer to refer to the Supreme Being as "She." If this seems a little strange or perhaps even a little unsettling to some of you, I’d like to simply say this. It’s my personal preference. I do not mean by this any diminution in the concept of God. I’m referring to exactly the God Mr. Horner is talking about: the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The God who sent Jesus to redeem our sins. My felines is just that, since we’ve used "He" for so long, and since I as a feminist believe women are completely and utterly the equal of men, that it’s time for the next thirty centuries or so, to use "She." A lot of Christians understand that God is not a gendered being. God does not have one sex or the other. Again, if that upsets you, just read "He" if that’s your preference. It’s simply my preference to use "She."
This argument is called the problem of evil, and I’m giving it in the formulation that my teacher in graduate school Herbert Heilderberger gave me. And I have a kind of affinity for this view. It has personal meaning to me because when I encountered this particular formulation, it sort of shifted me from a kind of agnosticism into atheism. This argument is what convinced me. It has five premises and a conclusion. The logic of it is a little bit complex, but I’m sure Mr. Horner will agree that if all five premises are true, the conclusion must be true. So let’s look at the reasons:
- If God exists, then She is benevolent and omnipotent.
- If there is evil, then God is either unwilling or unable to prevent evil.
- If She is unable, then She is not omnipotent.
- If She is unwilling, then She is not benevolent.
- There is evil.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
Notice this is a fairly simple, straightforward argument There aren’t lots of complicated concepts here. What I want to do now is go over each of the premises one at a time, and defend them each in turn.
First, if God exists, then She is benevolent and omnipotent. The criticism that might be made of that premise is that there are lots of conceptions of God, and this is only one of them, and this is really unfair to rest your case on this particular idea of God being benevolent or being all-powerful. My response to this would be it may very well be that some religions can allow some other concept of God, but the Christian religion as it is commonly understood and practiced, very much needs this conception of God. If God is not benevolent, then She’s hardly worth worshipping. If the Supreme Being is not a good being, then are you just going to put your chips in with the strongest force around? No, you want to worship God because She’s good. If God is not omnipotent, then the story is very difficult for the Christian.
If some religions say there are different and equal warring forces of good and evil, but if that were the case, that’s what the Christians call the heresy of Manicheism [sp?], then who knows which side is going to encompass you? Suppose that God is even really almost completely omnipotent but not quite, like 99% omnipotent, but there’s something She can’t do, no matter how much She’d like to. That’s not a very satisfying God, because it does not assure the Christian story of good news and assurance of salvation if you’re a believer. Maybe you’re one of the 99, you know, you deserve it, and there’s lots of other Christians that got saved, and you should have been right up there with them, and She’s really sorry, but She’s not totally powerful, so you spend eternity in Hell. Well, it’s too bad.
Or suppose, you know, this is a very, very big universe. There are billions of galaxies. Maybe She’s basically got in charge of most of it, but there’s one galaxy called the Milky Way that, you know, just she had to leave go. And that everybody in the human race is not under her protection, but is under, say, the spell of Satan or the Devil. God, under the Christian story, has to be omnipotent. So the first premise is true.
The second and third premises I’m not going to go over in detail. They’re fairly straightforward. The third one is true by definition. To be unable to do something is just to not be omnipotent. If, and I’m sure if there were any problem with premise two Mr. Horner would address it. I don’t think that there is.
I think that all of the action in this argument rests on premise four. And I don’t know if I’ll have time to get to premise five tonight, if not just read it on your own, and I think you’ll see that the Christian cannot deny premise five. So, it looks like already Christianity is hanging by a thread here. They have to show that premise four is false. What does premise four say? "If God is unwilling, then She is not benevolent."
Now Christians do tell stories about why God might be unwilling to prevent evil, even though She is basically an purely good. One of the stories is the so-called "free will defense" of God’s existence. The free will defense goes as follows. God knew that it was good to create free human beings rather than slaves or automatons and so She did. And in doing so, She gave them free will, and in giving them free will, allows them the right to be morally bad. That’s part of the whole point in having free will is having the right to follow God or not, and you have the ability to. Evil and sin is then explained as one human doing onto another, what the first human didn’t want done unto him or her. So the free will defense says that evil is due to bad things that humans do to one another.
Now that defense is not adequate because there are many kinds of evils and harms and sufferings that occur to people, through no human agency. If somebody dies in an earthquake, if somebody is killed by a tornado, there is no way that that could be caused by human beings. Many illnesses and accidents are similarly not caused by human beings. If that’s the case, the free will defense does not work.
What does the Christian have left? It seems to me the only thing the Christian has left is the so-called "necessary evil" defense of God’s existence. The necessary evil defense of God’s existence says "all evils, at least all natural evils such as those caused by earthquakes and illnesses and so on, are necessary to the greater good. They accomplish some greater, positive benefit." For example, if courage is to exist in the world, and God wants to create courage, courage is a good, God wants to maximize all goods, God in fact being omnipotent and completely benevolent, has in fact created the best possible world that there could be. This, according to this defense, is the best of all possible worlds. But that best of all possible worlds includes a good like courage. Courage requires danger. The best of all possible worlds includes a good like charity. Charity requires want and poverty. God also requires for our own character development that we suffer certain hardships and difficulties. This is the necessary evil defense of God’s existence, okay?
The problem with this defense is, all I ask is you look around you. Outside of any context where you might feel forced into this straight-jacket because it looks like if you won’t agree to this, you’re going to have to deny God’s existence, outside of any context like that, this is not the best of all possible worlds. How could the suffering that we know exists and occurs possibly be explained by some greater good? What about all those people, 26,000 or so whom died in an earthquake in India? Or the people who suffered so much in the Midwest from the floods? Were they all sinners? Equally? Did they all deserve to die? Was there in every case a greater good that was accomplished? What greater good was accomplished by 26,000 people dying, rather than 24,000? It’s hard to see how that could possibly be explained. That’s why it’s hard for me to believe that God exists.
One possible option there is to say that there is an after-life and there will be a reward for those who’ve been punished or harmed, in the afterlife. But that seems to me not sufficient. For one thing, now you have to show there exists an eternal afterlife. Presumably there is an eternal state. What this defense is is the view that God justifies all this suffering by granting all this eternal life in Heaven. The problem I have with that is that, besides the fact that you have to prove the existence of a Heaven, before you can prove the existence of a God (and that it seems to me is very hard to do), it still doesn’t satisfy our worry about all the suffering that goes on in the world. Suppose that somebody just tortured somebody.
intense physical pain. And then suppose that after that, the torturer treated that person very, very kindly, forever after. Does that compensate for the torture that was placed on the experience of this one person that was tortured? I don’t see how it could. If we would still think that that person was not totally good for having tortured in the first place, then why would we excuse God for having allowed people the torments of this sort of extremely painful life, this extremely painful experience, when we would not allow a human being to get off the hook in that easy a way? God is supposed to be even better than that. And think, you know, when you’re considering this, think about the sort of pain that a child might suffer who is experiencing bone marrow cancer, which I understand is an extremely painful kind of cancer. Think about the suffering that child undergoes, not knowing why this is happening to her, not knowing how long it’s going to last, not being able to get any solace from parents. Even though they’re sitting there, they’re not experience any pain. The child does. And then what happens? Then the child dies. Isn’t it at least intellectually difficult to understand how a God could allow that? Because it’s very difficult for me, I believe that the Christian idea of a God, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, just won’t work.