Monthly Archives: February 2012

Peter Hurford v. cl on Needless Suffering, cl’s First

I’ve agreed to be a judge for a debate between Peter Hurford, of, and cl, of The Warfare Is Mental. My analysis of Peter’s opening speech can be found here.

I’ve had a range of reactions to cl’s first round rebuttal.  Right at the outset I was shocked by the early concession that needless suffering exists. Cl has theological motivations for this move, but it is unclear to me whether cl is conceding to the same definition Peter put forth. I also found that this debate took an unexpected turn. That is, I did not expect cl to address the Black Death as a moral issue. I found this move quite ingenious. Nonetheless, I am confused by the fact that cl argues, correctly in my opinion, that Peter is arguing from ignorance, yet cl does not use this point as a defeater for specific theodicies.  The Free Will argument, and the Natural Law argument were not specifically addressed in this rebuttal. I realize that cl had a monumental task to address all of Peter’s arguments, but I think cl could have used the argument from ignorance defense as a quick response.  Otherwise, this is a fascinating counter-punch to Peter’s 1000-hand slap.


My commentary is recorded below. Cl’s rebuttal is in block quotes, my comments are in red.

I’ve concluded that needless suffering exists. On my view, sin caused death, suffering and so-called “natural evil.” According to Genesis, God made the world good and humans had eternal life. Sin entailed a fall from the highest possible good. It was not necessary, God did not desire it. The suffering sin produced cannot possibly be logically required for the higher good to obtain because the highest possible good had already obtained. Criticisms that God “could have made a world without suffering” are nullified.

Cl agrees with Peter that needless suffering exists, so the issue rests on whether or not needless suffering is inconsistent with the existence of the God of Abraham.  I’m not completely clear on whether cl agrees with Peter’s definition, especially in light of the comment that “the highest possible good had already obtained”.  I think cl may have the felix cupla doctrine in mind, though a clarification is in order here.  Does this suggest that all suffering is necessary by Peter’s definition, insofar as any bit of suffering is sufficient to necessitate Christ’s redeeming act?

Even though suffering is needless, eliminating suffering doesn’t eliminate any higher good. Suffering isn’t necessary to produce goods. Obviously, Jesus didn’t believe that removing suffering eliminated higher good, else no sick would have been healed, nor would commands to heal be issued. In fact, we would have been commanded to ignore suffering. This defangs Peter’s “obstruction of divine justice” argument on the spot.

Cl appears to be correct on this point.  The God of Abraham consistently commands tithing and care for the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  The alleviation of suffering does not obstruct divine justice, but is a part of it.  Cl does not precisely explain where Peter’s logic breaks down though, which would be helpful. This addresses a point raised in the introduction and conclusion of Peter’s piece.  (3 points)

This might complicate judging, but that’s where the logic lead. I’ll counter as many of Peter’s arguments as I can, and see where the second round takes us.

Inherently Fallacious

I recently said that most POE arguments reduce to ignorance and/or incredulity. [1] I stand by my words. Peter’s inability to conceive of a higher good or logical requirement does not justify even the provisional assumption that none exists, and to posture otherwise is to argue from incredulity. [2] Similarly, my inability to identify a higher good or logical requirement does not justify even the provisional assumption that none exists, and to posture otherwise is to argue from ignorance. [3] Things that seem intuitively true can be false (e.g. geocentrism), and things that seem intuitively false can be true (e.g. quantum mechanics). Peter needs more than intuition to mount a successful POE argument.

Cl argues by analogy that Peter’s argument is informally fallacious.  This point is really directed to the burden of proof that lies at the center of the debate (arguing from ignorance essentially is an attempt to shift the burden of proof).  Cl centers on the issue of who has the obligation to identify a higher good, or the logical necessity by which some suffering might arise.  This is odd since cl appears to have conceded the point that needless suffering does exist and is Biblical.  But this point seems to be that we cannot know if suffering is necessary or needless.  I tend to agree with cl that if the distinction between “needless suffering” and “necessary suffering” involves whether there is a logical possibility of bringing about associated higher goods without that suffering, then the burden falls on the person making the claim to prove this modal point. (3 points)

Honest Oversights Or Theatrics?

Peter offers analogies that should raise the suspicion of any rational person. To claim that reindeer can fly one must unjustifiedly assign a property (flight) to a member of a class (ruminant mammal). This is unjustified because no other member shares said property (no ruminant mammals fly). However, to claim that Peter’s examples of suffering might be logically required to obtain higher goods, one need only assume that a member of a class shares the same properties as other members (Peter agrees that many members of the class “suffering” are logically required to obtain higher goods).

Regarding Theodicy #6, to claim that rewarding temporal suffering with eternal joy is “the equivalent of punching someone in the face and then giving them $1,000″ is to mistakenly equate a cheap, finite reward ($1,000) with an infinitely valuable one (eternal joy).

These are textbook examples of the fallacy from false analogy. [4] Magic notwithstanding, there is no remote possibility of reindeer flying. However, since several members of the class “suffering” are logically required to obtain higher goods, the possibility of Peter’s examples following suit seems significant. So why would he imply only a “remote possibility” that his examples might be logically required to obtain higher goods? Why would he imply that a measly $1,000 is commensurate to eternal joy?

For an analogy to be successfully rebutted, a relevant difference must be found.  Cl has achieved this.  (3 points)

Taking The Offensive

Peter claimed his examples are “proof beyond reasonable doubt” that needless suffering exists. Citing geneticist Stephen O’Brien, PBS writes:

The areas that were hardest hit by the Black Plague match those where the gene for HIV resistance is the most common today. [5]

Modern science—the atheist’s oracle—suggests the plague may have facilitated HIV resistance. That the pertinent mutation might not have obtained given a different genetic algorithm seems fair grounds for at least the provisional assumption of logical requirement. Now, Peter can say, “But God could have just zapped it away,” or some other variant of “Why didn’t God do it the way I want,” but that’s purely ad hoc not to mention it ignores the fact God already gave us a world without disease and we ruined it.

Here cl offers a good possible higher good for the Bubonic plague.  The issue, of course is whether it meets Peter’s definition of necessary suffering.  Cl anticipates Peter’s response and insists that it is ad hoc.  This point needs to be developed further.  I think cl is saying that while Peter might be able to argue for alternative that he personally finds more desirable, he cannot show that they are more desirable simpliciter.  This could be spelled out more clearly. (2 points)

Alternatively, historians such as Bowsky (1971) and Bridbury (1983) suggest the plague may have been a key turning point in European economic development: wages would not have risen had there not been such a drastic increase in the demand for laborers. Isn’t a deficit of laborers logically required in order to spur demand? Why does Peter act stumped? Are these not grounds to doubt Peter’s claim that his examples are “proof beyond reasonable doubt” of needless suffering?

Cl seems to be doing two things here that may be working at cross purposes.  Cl is engaging in Peter’s demand to provide a logically possible reason to think the suffering is not needless  But earlier Cl says that it is Peter’s responsibility to prove that it is needless rather than necessary.


Let’s look at #4. To say “God could have instilled any of these lessons, love for God, or character from birth” is just a mere assertion that does not explain why God should have done that over some other route. Peter continues,

Given that God knows all lessons, has infinite love for himself, and is of perfect virtue, yet has not suffered, there is no reason to think that suffering is logically necessary for these three things.

According to the Bible, God suffered terribly. Per the same logic securing his previous conclusion, mustn’t Peter concede that, since God has suffered, we have reason to believe suffering might be logically necessary for those things?

This point may require a bit more development.  God has suffering in time, but it is not clear that suffering was necessary for God to possess his character. (1 point)

Peter’s note that the soul-building theodicy cannot explain animal suffering is irrelevant. One cannot justifiedly fault a theodicy for not explaining a particular type of suffering when another theodicy can (consequence for sin). #4, defanged.

Here I think cl is hitting on my worry about Peter’s argument.  By arguing that each theodicy individually does not explain all varieties of suffering, we cannot conclude that all of the theodicies taken together will not explain all varieties of suffering (composition).  The question, then, is whether cl has a theodicy for every type of suffering.  Up to this point, it does not seem that cl has been able to “defang” the problem of animal suffering.  Whether it is cl’s burden at all is another question.  Nonetheless, if cl is going to engage these theodicies, it seems that cl has accepted the burden. 

Same with Theodicy #5. Peter writes,

…God could have made something meaningful instead that did not involve suffering…

God did. We ruined it.

Cl is defending a Biblical God.  However pithy this point is, I think it is an important one.  The question on the table is whether suffering is incompatible with the Abrahamic God.  Presumably this God is described in scripture, so Peter must explain why suffering is incompatible with the God described in scripture. (1 point)

…removing the suffering of nonhuman animals and removing birth defects would require an unfathomable amount of re-engineering biology…

That’s irrelevant. God didn’t allow these things so we could solve puzzles.

A possible explanation, but I am not sure if it is emotionally satisfying.  Again, it is not clear whether cl is accepting the burden, or shifting it.  Here it looks like cl does not feel compelled to offer a reason.

In the 14th century, humans were tasked with stopping the bubonic plague – not only did they have very little medical resources and containment plans, they lacked a germ theory of disease altogether.

The Black Death was a moral evil that deserved punishment. Regarding Theodicy #2, Peter said victims “were not especially more sinful” than people today. According to the Bible, that’s false. Filthiness is sin.

I must admit that I did not anticipate this move.  One wonders whether cl is arguing that all cleanliness laws are still in effect.  Nonetheless, cl has the backing of scripture.  Certain it is likely that the bubonic plague would have been mitigated had hygiene been more of a priority.  Interestingly enough, this point does not even require that 14th century humans would understand the relationship between hygiene and disease.  They need only understand the virtue and godliness of cleanliness and, as a side effect, they would have been better off.

The suspected primary culprit of the pandemic is Yersinia pestis, a bacterium carried by fleas living on rats which permeated the large, filthy cities of the era. [6]

The importance of hygiene was recognised only in the nineteenth century; until then it was common that the streets were filthy, with live animals of all sorts around and human parasites abounding. [7]

Take heed, foolish humans! We were warned not to become “defiled” by rats or other animals designated as “unclean” [8] and warned not to eat anything they touched. [9] God commanded us to bury dung outside city limits, [10] to avoid contact with bodily discharges because they are “unclean,” [11] to cleanse anything a person with bodily discharge touches, [12] to evacuate and seal up any house with “greenish or reddish” mildew, [13] and if the mildew persists after seven days, to “scrape the walls” inside the house, [14] remove any contaminated stones [15] and dump them outside city limits. [16]

Among other things, Wikipedia lists, “decay or decomposure of the skin while the person is still alive, high fever, and extreme fatigue” as symptoms of bubonic plague, [17] and God specifically warned that failure to obey would result in—wait for it—wasting diseases and fever that would drain away our life. [18]

This is by far the most thoroughly developed argument of the debate.  Cl makes direct connections between God’s commands, and the 14th century violations of those commands.  As a thorough inductive argument that makes use of historical sources, cl certainly merits full points for this argument (3 points).

Moral evil is any evil act, event or state of affairs that is directly attributable to the actions of a moral agent. The Black Death ravished Europe because moral agents sinned by disobeying God’s Holy Word and allowing filthiness, vermin and parasites to defile them. God warned us. We didn’t need to suffer the bubonic plague to get to Heaven, we only needed to listen to God’s Word.

I would say that this nearly rebuts one of Peter’s primary examples of needless suffering.  By making the Black Death a moral issue, where God’s commands were violated, a free will defense becomes all the more plausible, and necessary.  Of course, we still must find out whether the free-will defense is still on the table, and it has yet to be addressed in this debate by cl.  I think it is relevant here.

Bringing It All Home

This evidence is so strong even Peter claims it proves God’s goodness and glory “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” leaving him no rational alternative but to abandon atheism and acknowledge the God of the Bible. Peter recently wrote,

…knowledge of the germ theory of disease contained in the Bible rather than left to be discovered by fallible scientists would have saved billions of lives. Why [God] didn’t do so, given that it would prove [God’s] glory and goodness beyond a shadow of a doubt, is unknown.” [19, emphasis mine]

My list is just the tip of the iceberg, and already we have something akin to modern hygiene and germ theory, delivered 3,000 years before Pasteur was so much as a twinkle in his father’s eye—by people atheists often denigrate as ignorant goat-herders. Another source notes,

Jews who obeyed these godly instructions during the time of the black plague were not affected in the same way as others. [20]

Might that be because God provided clear, comprehensive hygienic commands in the Torah? I agree with Peter that a “god” who makes people suffer pointlessly is worthy of condemnation, cruel, malevolent, and fundamentally opposed to love and compassion, [21] but as my arguments have undeniably demonstrated, God did exactly what Peter asked for, and much more. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy to forfeit eternal life for an argument so weak it commits one to doubting God’s existence simply because they stubbed their toe?

Cl’s final move here is a nice attempt at an early KO.  I am very much interested to see how Peter will respond.  Cl claims to have met Peter’s direct challenge to the point of even using Peter’s own words to prove that God exists.

As I mentioned in my previous commentary, Peter unleashed several arguments–perhaps more than any one mere mortal could handle.

 Overall, cl is able to clash with several of Peter’s arguments, and has taken large strides to address one of Peter’s primary examples.  I still await cl’s response to the problem of nonhuman animal suffering, and birth defects. 

There were a few hiccups here and there.  A major weak point occurred in cl’s response to the 4th theodicy.  The theodicy claims that suffering is necessary to build personal/moral character.  Peter pointed out that it was not necessary for God.  Cl suggests that it might very well be necessary, since God did suffer.  Again, God’s suffering occurred once God entered into creation, so I think a bit more is needed there.

Cl hits the maximum amount of points, i.e. 12.  Although cl skirts close to the word limit at 1517, no points are deducted, since there is a 50 word leeway.  Two theodicies were not addressed, namely the free will theodicy, and natural law.  I think the free will theodicy should not have been ignored in light of the moral issues raised by the Black Death.  Thus, I deduct 2 points from the total score.  Cl earns 10 points this round from me.

Does Quantum Mechanics Make Room for Freedom?

This clip from Dr. Michio Kaku has caused me to think a bit further about the free-will debate, or at least it contributed to my reflection!

Pierre-Simon Laplace once theorized that if a super-intellect were to know every force, and every vector of every motion of every atom in the entire universe, then that intellect would know the entire future history of the universe.  Laplace’s demon, as this intellect was known, is no longer tenable given what we now know about quantum mechanics.  Surprisingly, despite the death of this demon, determinism and compatibilism remain the dominate theories regarding free will.  Libertarian views of free-will are largely marginalized by the philosophical community–with only Kantians, Existentialists, and Religious philosophers maintaining the banner.

Quantum mechanics may reveal a world of indeterminacy, but how does this actually relate to the free-will question?  In my conversations with determinist, they often think that the appeal to quantum indeterminacy is an attempt to equate free will with randomness.  But clearly if free will is anything, it is not randomness, but self-determination.   The free-willer does not deny causal principles.  Rather, the free-willer thinks that we who are individuated, intentional, rational, moral beings play a unique role in the causal narrative.

The reason quantum indeterminacy is important to the free will debate is that it opens up a space that the Newtonian-Laplacean world-view had closed off.  We now know that, even in principle, no action or event can be completely reduced to the surrounding external causes.  Sure, external factors play a huge role in determining our behavior and choices.  No one denies this.  But indeterminacy opens up a space such that we cannot say for certain that a truly self-caused decision, thought, or action didn’t arise.  We cannot trace all of the vectors of all the atoms behind a person’s choice, so it may very well be that the person herself played an irreducible role in that choice.

Peter Hurford v. cl on Needless Suffering, Peter’s First

I’ve agreed to be a judge for a debate between Peter Hurford, of, and cl, of The Warfare Is Mental.

Peter’s first speech went up on Valentine’s Day, and I’ve had some time to digest the contents.  As a judge, I’m trying to walk a line of providing substantive commentary and transparency in my assessment while not providing fodder to be used by th e opponent.  Consequently, my commentary may, at times, involve some hand-waving in the direction of my thinking without being explicit.

Peter’s complete first speech can be found here and a complete index of the debate is found here.

The debate topic is on whether needless suffering exists, and whether its existence duly undermines belief in the traditional Abrahamic God.  Peter is arguing in the affirmative on both counts. I will providing running commentary in my assessment.  My comments will appear in red.  For those of you who want to cut to the chase, Peter presented several arguments of varying degrees of strength.  I think there were some issues of development, and the occasional  missed-step, but they were made up by the volume of his examples. It is for this reason that I award Peter the maximum of points possible this round, i.e. 12 points.

Now onto the specifics. . .

Peter writes:

Hello. I am Peter Hurford, I am the author of and I am an atheist. I am here because I am involved in a debate with Cl, the author of The Warfare is Mental and somewhat of a Christian theist. While I think there are many reasons to not believe in various gods and many additional reasons to not believe in specifically benevolent gods, we are here to talk about only one part of one issue: the existence of needless suffering.

What is Needless Suffering?

What is this needless suffering that I claim exists? Needless suffering is also called unnecessary suffering, gratuitous suffering, or just plain evil. Put simply, needless suffering is anything that causes pain to an entity capable of feeling it and is not logically required in order to realize a higher benefit for that entity or other entities. Should this needless suffering exist, we as a collective society are worse off, and could be better off by eliminating it.

Commentary: Generally, I would say that this is a clear definition of needless suffering.  Much of the debate will hinge on this definition, as it will dictate the kind of response cl will have to provide.  An important feature, which Peter will point out later, is that needless suffering is “not logically required” in order to realize a higher benefit.  This is an important caveat, and I think it was good of Peter to flag it himself.  I do recommend caution where Peter suggests that needless suffering is synonymous with “just plain evil”, however.  This begs moral implications into the debate, so I want to see this worked out and not just defined into “needless suffering”.

Furthermore, should no needless suffering exist, we are in the best of all possible worlds and any attempt to remove suffering would make us worse off because we would lose the associated outweighing benefit and decreasing the net benefit to all people.

The argument here suggests that the absence of needless suffering is a sufficient condition for this being the best of all possible worlds. I suggest that this is backwards.  I think Peter intends to hold that this be the best of all possible worlds, no needless suffering would exist.  The difference is, of course, that among the possible worlds where no needless suffering exists, other positive attributes may yet exist by which one particular world is deemed the best, viz. a world with the least amount of necessary suffering.  So if Peter intends to defend an argument that cl’s world-view implies that we ought not to remove suffering, his first premise appears to be false.  If we convert the first premise, then it still may be the case that we ought to remove suffering, because the best possible world might also contain the least amount of suffering simplicter.  This issue arises again when Peter address the argument from ignorance.

As it stands, this argument is valid, though there is little defense for soundness, and in fact one premise appears to be false prime facie and so needs a more development.  (1 point)

What would be an example of necessary suffering? Consider the pain of surgery and recovery – this involves a lot of suffering, but it is still in our best interest to take this suffering on because it would allow us to avoid the pain that a debilitating disease might give us later on.This is the general logic of necessary suffering – however, I’d argue that this pain isn’t actually necessary because we can attain this higher, either by God omnipotently removing the disease or God preventing us from having the disease in the first place. This is why the “logically required” part is so important, for God can often get the higher benefit just by willing it.

Peter’s point is that what qualifies as necessary or needless suffering is relative to the capacity of the agents involved.  If an omnipotent agent, like God, exists, then the distinction is made on the basis of logical possibility, since logical possibility is the only limit placed on God’s capacity.  Peter’s set up is very helpful and clear.

Why Does Needless Suffering Matter?

Why does this matter? If we make two relatively non-controversial assumptions: (1) theism is about the existence of a single benevolent, omnipotent god and (2) a benevolent god would have no reason to allow needless suffering; the existence of needless suffering would be strong indication that theism is false. This is called the Problem of Evil, even though the debate isn’t about evil actions per se, but rather needless suffering as a whole.

These assumptions do appear to be non-controversial.  The first is a standard bare-bone conception of theism.  The second assumption appears to be correct analytically.  That is, if God had a reason to allow some bit of suffering, then it would not be needless.  Then again, it might seem that God might be unaware of some possible way to achieve a higher good, but still will some bit of suffering for that higher good.  In such a case, God might have a reason, though the evil is still needless, because God did not consider every possible alternative.  A solution to this might be to appeal to God’s omniscience, which is an attribute typically ascribed to God.  I suggest this only as a help, and because I think it is immaterial to the overall debate.  Peter might be assuming that omniscience is implied by omnipotence, but I think this should be made explicit.

However, Cl and I agreed that we will only be debating the existence of needless suffering, and not debating either of these two assumptions. If you want to see a comprehensive defense of these two assumptions, as well as additional justifications for atheism, please look to my website. For now on, I continue with the intent just to defend the proposition that needless suffering exists as I’ve defined it.

Why Think that Needless Suffering Exists?

While the pains of surgery that I mentioned before are an example of needless suffering, especially in the third-world where they are routinely done without anesthetic, I’d like to focus on three horrors that I find especially clear and compelling: (A) babies that suffer intensely and then die from birth defects, (B) nonhuman animals that suffer intensely in the wild and within our factory farms, and (C) the Bubonic Plague that killed over 25 million people in the fourteenth century.What makes these three examples instances of needless suffering? Namely that no higher benefit can be identified that would logically require any of these examples. Let me briefly consider some potential benefits (called theodicies) that Cl or others might argue, and explain why they are inadequate:

Up to this point, Peter has been framing the debate through definitions and examples.  It is important to note how he has framed this debate, in understanding how I am evaluating him.  Fundamentally, the way Peter has framed this debate has implications with regard to the burden of proof.  Peter is challenging his opponent to explain how these are NOT examples of needless suffering.   The issue is complicated because he claims that certain classes of suffering justification on the basis that they are logically required for a higher benefit.  For me, the whole question of onus hinges on the definitions Peter uses. This is a point Peter addresses more specifically in his conclusion.

Theodicy #1: Free Will
The idea that suffering is necessary for Free Will is one of the most famous defenses against the Problem of Evil. However…

  • The Free Will Defense fails because only a compatibilist theory of free will makes sense – God could have easily created people that had genuine free choice yet never chose rephrensible actions, as this is often the kind of free will that God seems to have himself, or the kind of free will of people residing in Heaven.
  • But I need not draw Cl into a long debate over the nature of free will, since it is quite clear that there is no free will involved in any of the examples I mentioned.

Peter presents two arguments against the free will defense.  The first is that the Free Will defense depends upon incompatibilist theories of free will.  Peter says that such theories because only compatiblist versions make sense.  We must conclude that the Free Will defense fails.  This is a valid argument, but the justification needs some attention.  He writes that God could have created genuinely free people that never perform reprehensible actions, but it is not clear why this shows incompatiblism nonsensical, but perhaps I am missing the point.  I award 1 point for validity here and 1 points for soundness.  I think that Peter could have spelled this out more clearly.  (2 points total).

Peter’s second point is that a Free Will defense has been pre-empted on the basis of the fact that his examples lack the involvement of free will.  Factory farming may be relevant here though (1 points).

Theodicy #2: Punishment of Sin
Second, another very commonly given reason that suffering is necessary is because God needs to use it to punish sin, and sin must be punished in order for there to be less of it, and less sin is a higher benefit.

  • Nonhuman animals don’t have original sin, let alone can make moral decisions capable of being sensibly punished.
  • Babies with original sin don’t need to be punished for the original sin because they have not made any conscious choice to reject God or act malevolently.
  • Given how uncorrelated sinful behavior is with suffering, this theodicy is highly implausible.  Those who suffered through the Bubonic Plague were not especially more sinful than those today who have the advantages of modern medicine.

Peter argues that punishment of sin cannot be a higher benefit to explain the necessity of suffering because nonhuman animals don’t have original sin and are nonmoral, i.e. (B).  In other words, this explanation is not sufficient to explain the existence of all necessary suffering, though it might explain some.  This is similar to Peter’s previous point, that his examples don’t depend on Free Will.  This argument only leads to the conclusion that punishment of sin is insufficient to account for all types of suffering. Nonetheless, Peter makes a fair point here.  He then extends the point to all three varieties of examples, arguing that babies may have original sin, but they do not merit punishment.  Furthermore, it seems that many by sin rise, and many by virtue fall, i.e. suffering does not appear to be correlated to punishment.  Again, these are fair points, though Peter could have developed his examples in further detail.  (3 points).

Theodicy #3: Need for Natural Law
Third and even more generally, yet another theodicy says that birth defects and the suffering of nonhuman animals at the hands of natural disasters is necessary to have the kind of consistent physics needed for our world.

  • There’s no reason why an omnipotent God couldn’t make a different world that has consistent physics yet does not contain these examples, or why he couldn’t just maintain such a world with divine will.
  • None of the examples I mentioned are remotely fundamental to physics – the world could still operate just fine without the Bubonic Plague, birth defects, and/or nonhuman animal suffering.

As this stands, I accept Peter’s possibility, that God could have created a different set of physical laws so that such examples do not exist.  However, it does seem that Peter needs to tie this back to his initial contention of needless suffering as a variety of pain that is not logically necessary to bring about a higher benefit, since natural laws are not necessarily the higher benefits in question, but the varieties of phenomena that follow from these ordered natural laws, e.g. the ability to develop science or to act in the world in meaningful ways.  Peter’s argument here is only that there could be another set of laws where his examples of suffering would not come about, but it seems he must also explain why such a world would retain all the benefits of this world, at the very least. (1 point) 

Peter then argues that none of the examples he lists necessarily follow from or are fundamental to the physics of this world.  This suggests that such things are accidents of history rather than determined from the physical laws of nature.  I would like to see Peter develop this point a bit further, especially in light of his contention that the only coherent view of free-will is compatiblism. Again, this argument needs to be developed further. (1 point)

Theodicy #4: Drawing Closer to God / Lessons Learned / Building Virtue
Fourth, a very common theodicy is referred to as soul-making, which has typically been three different things – God using suffering to draw people closer to him, using suffering to teach lessons, or using suffering to build people’s character.

  • All three of these seemingly different defenses can be defeated in the same way – God could have instilled any of these lessons, love for God, or character from birth.
  • Given that God knows all lessons, has infinite love for himself, and is of perfect virtue, yet has not suffered, there is no reason to think that suffering is logically necessary for these three things.
  • None of these elements of soul-making are at all relevant to nonhuman animals or those who die too young, since they are incapable of any of these three things.

Peter defends the view that virtues, character, lessons, and the drive to become closer to God could have been instantly willed into a creature without the need for obstacles and suffering, i.e. it is logically possible for God to will such things as part of our character, so it is logically possible to avoid this suffering while attaining the higher benefits.   If the matter is logical possibility, then it would be helpful to know precisely what is meant by virtue, character, and love.

A stronger argument is that God is, by nature, all of these things yet has not suffered.  So if God is logically possible, then suffering is not necessary for knowledge, virtue, love, etc.  There is an implicit enthymemic argument here, which does validly lead to the conclusion that it is not logically impossible for a loving, wise, and virtuous being to exist without suffering.  The key question will be whether such a being can be created.

Peter claims that there is no relevance between soul-building and nonhuman animals, since they cannot develop their moral character.  To full answer the question of relevance to nonhuman animals, we must consider whether their suffering may be necessary for human moral development.  Taken separately, each point could be developed further, but as  cumulative case, Peter does a good job of both defending his examples and arguing against the logical necessity of suffering for soul-making ( 3 points).

Theodicy #5: The Need for Genuine Human Accomplishment
Fifth, it is argued that suffering is necessary to give humans things to do that make a meaningful impact, and nothing is more meaningful than alleviating the suffering of others.

  • This response fails because God could have made something meaningful instead that did not involve suffering – given that our purpose and drive for meaning is allegedly God-given in the first place.
  • All of the examples I mentioned are so structural and complicated that humanity has no hope of solving these problems for thousands of years – removing the suffering of nonhuman animals and removing birth defects would require an unfathomable amount of re-engineering biology.
  • We often don’t have even the slightest chance of ameliorating the suffering, even if the issue is complicated. In the 14th century, humans were tasked with stopping the bubonic plague – not only did they have very little medical resources and containment plans, they lacked a germ theory of disease altogether.
  • Unless Heaven is undesirable, there still should be genuine human accomplishment there, despite there being no needless suffering.

Peter argues that if meaning is God-given, then it is arbitrary and need not be tied to accomplishments pertaining to suffering.  It would be helpful to draw out why we must think that God could choose to do otherwise than he did.

Peter also raises a point that these issues are not going to be quickly or easily resolved.  Perhaps they will never be solved.  A question might be raised as to what he means by “accomplishment” and why he connects it with the idea of complete resolution.  His first two points seem to depend upon such a connection.  But is caring for the dying, at the risk of one’s own life, a genuine human accomplishment even if it does not entirely alleviate suffering?

Peter  argues that heaven is desirable only if there are human accomplishments, but there is not supposed to be suffering in heaven.  But I think Peter may have made an invalid move here.  He said that the alleviation of suffering is the most meaningful human accomplishment, not the only form of human accomplishment.  It might be that heaven contains less meaningful forms of accomplishment, but is more desirable for other reasons.  I think there are many important questions.  I would award 2 points for the first two bullet points, but I think the last point is a bit of a non sequitur (2 points).

Theodicy #6: The Benefits of Heaven
Sixth and last, it is suggested that all this suffering is inconsequential because all will be corrected in Heaven.

  • This is controversial however, because it is undecided theologically whether babies who die from birth defects or nonhuman animals actually go to Heaven.
  • Heaven does not make the suffering any more needless now even if Heaven is compensation, because Heaven could still be given without the suffering. It’s the equivalent of punching someone in the face and then giving them $1000.

Peter notes that it is undecided as to whether babies and nonhuman animals will go to heaven, and so their suffering may not be made inconsequential in light of this fact. This does seem to be an open theological question, so it seems that (A) and (B) cannot be explained away with such an appeal (2 points).

Peter also points out that this view suggests that heaven is, in some way, compensation for suffering.  I understood this theodicy a little differently though, so I am a bit confused by this point.  If heaven is understood as compensation for suffering, then I would agree with Peter that it does not give a reason for suffering.  But if merited grace is gained through suffering and the alleviation of suffering, then heaven made possible.  I am not sure that Peter is attacking the strongest version of this argument, so it seems to me that he inadequately defends (C) by a straw man of salvation as merited compensation. (0 point).

Now, I have certainly not addressed every potential benefit that might be argued for suffering in general, or for these particular instances. However, if Cl or someone else has a different higher benefit that would logically require these three examples, I’d be happy to consider it in my rejoinder.

An Argument from Ignorance?

Now that all the common theodicies are dispensed with, I’d like to turn to a different kind of reply – that we don’t need any specific theodicy because God simply could have an unknown purpose for allowing suffering. Cl charges me with unfairly reasoning from “I can’t see a higher benefit from this suffering” to “There is no higher benefit to this suffering”, which is an argument from ignorance.How do we know that reindeer cannot fly? Sure, we’ve investigated reindeer and not found any biological wings, helicopter blades, or jetpacks – but maybe they defy gravity through some undiscovered means. Sure, we’ve never observed a flying reindeer and observed millions of reindeer that don’t fly their entire lives, but this could just mean reindeer are holding out on us. Is this an argument from ignorance? Are we unfairly reasoning from “I can’t see a reason why reindeer are incapable of flight” to “Reindeer cannot fly”?No – claims like reindeer being incapable of flight are not absolute, but rather provisional based on the analysis of tons of evidence. Of course there’s a remote possibility that we might be mistaken, but this doesn’t prevent us from claiming the knowledge of reindeer being incapable of flight based on an evidential inference.We can accept the existence of needless suffering provisionally, based on there being no actual reason for an unknown purpose. This is why the Problem of Evil I argue is evidential, not logical. While I do accept the burden of proof to demonstrate the existence of needless suffering, it is unreasonable to demand I give proof in the mathematical sense – rather, proof beyond a reasonable doubt is proof enough.

Here Peter is using an argument from analogy to show that he has not committed the fallacy of arguing from ignorance.  He draws on our experience with reindeer, which leads us to the inductive conclusion that all reindeer are flightless.  This is a generalization based upon experiential data, though it arrives at a negative attribute.  This is to be contrasted Peter’s own argument, that we cannot seem to observe any higher purpose for certain forms of suffering, which leads to the conclusion that certain forms of suffering lack a higher purpose.  I can see the similarity that Peter is trying to draw, but I think there is a relevant difference, which I can only hand-wave towards.  Generally speaking, I think Peter’s definition of needless suffering places a stronger burden than mere inductive enumeration  (2 points).

Secondly, How do we really know that rape and murder is bad? Certainly there could be some higher benefit that rape and murder play in our society and we actually could be making the world worse off by banning rape and murder. If we were to worry about these exceedingly unlikely chances that the suffering we observe is actually necessary for a higher benefit, there is no way we could reason morally that we ought to actually stop raping and murdering.It is special pleading to suggest that we should only question some instances of suffering (like my examples), and not question other instances of suffering (like rape and murder).

Again, Peter seems to be appealing to an analogy.  this time it is between what we humans would permit in our society as needless and what is needless on a cosmic scale.  It seems to me that Peter has laid out some relevant differences in his definition of God that need to be addressed if this comparison is to be strengthened (1 point).

Concluding Challenge

For these reasons, I conclude that needless suffering exists, and I challenge Cl to provide the higher benefit that logically requires the three examples I gave of (A) babies that suffer intensely and then die from birth defects, (B) nonhuman animals that suffer intensely in the wild and within our factory farms, and (C) the Bubonic Plague that killed over 25 million people in the fourteenth century.Secondly, if these three examples aren’t needless, I don’t know what is. Thus I would like to also challenge Cl to explain what suffering would have to look like to be considered needless by Cl. I am honored to take place in this debate and I look forward to Cl’s rebuttal.

My overall estimation is that Peter has presented a strong case for his side.  He has accomplished this through clearly defining the terms of the debate, framing the question of the debate to put a heavier burden on cl (we will have to see if cl can reasonably argue for a shift of this burden back  on Peter), and providing several lines of argumentation.  Admittedly, the arguments were of varying degrees of strength with the strongest, in my estimation, being the argument against the theodicy from punishment of sin, and against the soul making theodicy.  Peter tended to avoid deductive syllogism, opting for a more cumulative case approach, which has advantages and disadvantages.  We will see if cl can capitalize on this, or be bogged down with the details!

Peter tackled quite a few arguments in this opening round, so I would say that some were left under-developed.  I hope to see him clarify some of these issues in subsequent rounds, e.g. whether his position on natural law, and the contingencies that arise from it, is consistent with his stance as a determinist. 

Peter has racked up the maximum amount of points in this round of 12.  No formal fallacies were committed. Since this is the first speech, points cannot be deducted for failure to address a previous argument.

A Question about Naturalism, Mereology, and Individuating Persons

“If [Helen Joy] ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared” (C.S. Lewis 1989, 41).

I think Lewis is basically right. To me, the soul is the formal principle of the body–necessary to explain a person’s identity and individuation despite spatio-temporal and material change. If souls do not exist, i.e. if there are ultimately no real formal causes to explain how the physical parts of a human body can constitute an organic whole conscious and living person, then what natural/physical facts or phenomena could be invoked to explain the fact that I am a whole person? If naturalism is true, and there are no souls, does it remain possible to show that mereological nihilism is false?


Lewis, C.S. 1989. A Grief Observed. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

The Euthyphro Regress: A Defense of the Moral Argument

I would like to provide a more convincing way of discussing the moral argument for God’s existence.  The argument is typically formulated as:

  1.  If objective moral facts exist, then God exists.
  2. Objective moral facts exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I’ve always found the moral argument for God’s existence extremely tricky to defend.  But recently it has occurred to me that we should take a cue from our atheist friends.

First off,  I think it is not always clear what is meant by “objective moral facts”.  What the theist means is that a certain set of moral facts necessarily exist and remain true, regardless of what one might think.

Here I am in dialogue with atheists who are not willing to abandon the objectivity of moral facts. Such atheists are restricted to attacking the first premise of the argument, if they are to avoid the conclusion.  Very often, these atheists will pull the rug out from under the theist by employing the old Euthyphro dilemma.  If this tactic turns out to be successful, it shows that God is not necessary for objective moral facts, which would in fact undercut the first premise.  However, I think the Euthyphro dilemma does no such thing.  In fact, I think the dilemma proves even more problematic for the atheistic moral objectivist.  But first I think it is important to clear up some common misunderstandings about the moral argument.

1.       How the Moral Argument is Commonly Misunderstood:

The moral argument deals with metaethical concerns rather than applied ethical or normative issues.  That is to say, the argument is about the fundamental nature of moral properties, facts, judgments, and the like.  It is not a theory, nor does it tell us the exact implications of how we ought to live, or even how we are to reason about moral values.  I think that the moral argument is most commonly misunderstood insofar as it is thought of as an applied or normative argument.  At least that is what atheistic responses tend to indicate to me.

A: Confusing the moral argument for an applied ethics argument.

To be clear, it is entirely possible and reasonable to think that an atheist could live a moral life despite lacking a coherent metaethical foundation to his world-view.  Thinking that the moral argument is an attack on the moral character of atheists is one of the most common misunderstandings of the argument.  This is particularly unfortunate because it often occasions hurt feelings and indignation on the part of the atheist.  I think that this happens because atheists misunderstand the moral argument as concerning applied ethics, or whether certain people have the ability to live consistently according to a moral code.

Ed Feser, in his recent book The Last Superstition, brings some clarity to this issue:

. . . [Secularists] assume that the very existence of their own passionately held moral beliefs is sufficient evidence that atheism is compatible with morality.  But it is no such thing.  The question isn’t whether an atheist has or can have various moral values or a morally decent character (apart from his irreligiousness, of course. . . a very serious vice).  Of course he can.  The question is whether morality can be given an objective rational foundation on atheistic or naturalistic premises, and the answer is that it cannot.  An atheist or naturalist can believe in morality – that is a psychological fact – but he cannot have a rational justification for his belief – that is a philosophical fact.  For the premises required to ground morality also entail a theistic and generally non-naturalistic view of the world” (Feser 2008, 220-221).

The moral argument demonstrates that the very possibility for atheists and theists alike to live moral lives is grounded in the existence of an omniperfect Being—a Being who has infused creation with a certain moral structure to which all things are ordered and by which all moral creatures are obligated.  Ironically enough, the fact that atheists can be moral is, for the theist, evidence that there is a God who is sustaining the moral order of the universe.

B:  Confusing the moral argument for a normative ethics argument

This confusion is a little less common than the first, but I think it is much more difficult to straighten out.  This is the response that there are many non-theistic normative moral theories, e.g. utilitarianism, contractarianism, emotivism, ethical egoism, various forms of deontology, etc.  There are likely an infinite variety of non-theistic moral theories, and so the objector invites the theist to wade through each one of these theories to point out why those theories cannot ground objective moral beliefs.  This is a seemingly Sisyphean task, so the atheist can relax while the theist performs the impossible.  However, this is just another confusion of what the moral argument seeks to establish.  The moral argument is not an argument for a particular theistic moral theory, like divine command.  Nor does it pertain to any particular set of moral beliefs.  Instead, it implies the claim that no matter the theory, if the facts and related propositions expressed by those theories are to be objectively determined, then there must be an absolute, unchanging, perfect, and purposive foundation of morality.

The theist argues that the natural world is not up to the task.  We look around at the world of man and the world of nature and recognize that things are not the way they should be.  The world is broken, fallen, and in flux.  People are inconstant, capricious, and self-centered.  What in nature can serve as the anchor point for morality?  “We’re evolving, we’re progressing!” one might say.  Are we?  How do you know in which direct progress is?

2.       A Euthyphro Dilemma for the Atheist, or The Euthyphro Regress

A:  The Background

The Euthyphro dilemma has its origins in Plato’s dialogue The Euthyphro.  According to this splendid little dialogue,Socrates unleashed this dilemma against a feckless young Athenian, Euthyphro, who wanted to bring up charges of murder against his father.  In accusing his father, was Euthyphro acting pious or impious?  Euthyphro seemed to think he knew what the gods loved–that they would love his sense of justice, and honesty.  However, Socrates compelled him to think about the matter a little more deeply. After some good Socratic questioning, and through a brilliant dilemma, it became apparent that Euthyphro clueless about piety.   Since Socrates first formulated it, this dilemma has taken on its own life.  It is now the most common rebuttal to divine command morality.  James Rachels, in his introductory ethics text The Elements of Moral Philosophy posses the dilemma this way:

Is conduct right because the gods command it, or do the gods command it because it is right? . . .  Socrates’ question is about whether God makes the moral truths true or whether he merely recognizes that they’re true” (Rachels 2010, 50-51).

According to Rachels, if God makes moral truths, then several untoward consequences seem to follow. First, it makes the concept of morality mysterious.  God becomes a black box explanation for how moral truths can exist, i.e. this is a kind of “God of the gaps” argument for moral truths. Second, it makes moral truth arbitrary, because God is not appealing to any moral truths when he makes the truths that he makes.  If God makes moral truths, then it is not morally wrong to rape prior to God’s command against it.  So when God made the command not to rape, He couldn’t have been appealing to any intrinsic truth to the wrongness of rape.  There is no reason for why he couldn’t have commanded otherwise . Third, such an analysis of morality seems to lose sight of the real reasons that we understand moral truths.  We don’t think of murder as wrong because God commands it.  We think it is wrong because of all of the harm murder inflicts on innocent people (ibid.).

The alternative is that God recognizes moral truths.  If this is so, then objective moral truths exist independently of God, and the moral argument is unsound.

The theist is not without reply.  William Lane Craig’s considered response is as follows:

 . . .[O]ur moral duties are constituted by the commands of an essentially just and loving God. . . Since our moral duties are grounded in the divine commands, they are not independent of God.  Neither are God’s commands arbitrary, for they are the necessary expressions of his just and loving nature.  God is essentially compassionate, fair, kind, impartial, and so forth, and his commandments are reflections of his own character.  God’s character is definitive of moral goodness; it serves as the paradigm of moral goodness. . .  If the non-theist should demand, “Why pick God’s nature as definitive of the Good?” the answer is that God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, and a being which is the paradigm of goodness is greater than one which merely exemplifies goodness.  Unless we are nihilists, we have to recognize some ultimate standard of value, and God is the least arbitrary stopping point” (2008, 181-182).

Craig’s approach can be classified as escaping the horns of the dilemma, one of the three possible ways of rebutting a dilemma (the other two possible responses require proving each horn of the dilemma false, called “grasping the horns”, or by providing a counter-dilemma). Craig offers us an explanation for why God’s commands are not arbitrary.  When we reason about the good, we are not reasoning independently from God.  We are reasoning about God’s essential nature, even if we don’t recognize that we are doing so.   Craig relies on the Anselmian conception of God, i.e. a greatest conceivable being.  If there is such a being, it seems reasonable to think such a being would be the paradigm of moral perfection.   In the following reflection, I hope to buttress Craig’s remark that. . . “God is the least arbitrary stopping point” (ibid.).

B: The Euthyphro Regress

If atheists are going to spring the Euthyphro dilemma on the theist, then fair is fair, theists should be permitted to let the same dilemma loose on the atheist.  Let’s see who can handle the dilemma the best.

Are moral values and duties the product of personal choices on the part of an individual human person, or does an individual discover them as independent facts of reality?  If it is the former, then morals are not objective, but arbitrary and subjectively relative.  Atheists like Nietzsche and Sartre held to this position, but most atheists find the way out of the moral argument unsatisfying.  They don’t want to have to deny the objectivity of morality, they just want to deny that it depends upon God.  So the solution would have to be that moral values and duties are discovered, or recognized by an individual and those moral values and duties are explained by some other aspect of reality—something independent of individual human persons.  The atheist, at this point, might think that he has successfully navigated around moral subjectivism, while avoiding God as the foundation for moral objectivity.  But now it’s time for a reiteration of the Euthyphro dilemma!

What is this non-subjective producer of moral facts?  What is a level-up from individuals?  Is it the local community, the region, the nation, the world?  At each potential stopping point, we must reapply the dilemma.  Say it’s based upon the consensus of one’s national culture.  Does the culture make moral values, or discover them?  If one’s culture picks them, then we only have cultural relativism, not objective morality.  If the culture is just really good at discovering objective morality, then objective morality is independent of cultural consensus.  So let’s imagine that the atheist shifts away from human constructs towards biological/physical explanations.  But biological evolution could have been otherwise, so it would seem to be an arbitrary producer of moral facts.  Furthermore, evolution, according to most atheists, is purposeless and not intelligently directed.  So why think any resulting moral beliefs would be anything other than accidents of a process indifferent towards accurately producing moral facts.  But if biological evolution has come to produce beings that recognize moral truths, then moral truths are independent of biological evolution itself.  So biology won’t get us there, otherwise we’d just have evolutionary moral relativism.  What about physical nature itself?  This is just as problematic for the atheist, who holds that the universe is ultimately purposeless.  Even if it were the case that the physical constants of the universe had to be what they are, there is no reason to think that such supposedly necessary constants make morality any less arbitrary.  The universe does not seem to be the kind of thing that can give itself purpose, so the constants might necessarily be what they are, but the resulting moral values that happen to emerge are nothing more than an accidental side-effect at best.  And since most atheists reject final causality out of hand, it is impossible for such atheists to ground moral purpose in the physical constants whether or not they are necessary. Even more problematic is the fact that most atheists are pre-committed to the currently sexy theory of the multi-verse.  They commit to the theory, despite the lack of empirical evidence, in a futile attempt to escape the implications of fine-tuning.  But in so doing, they undermine any reason to think non-arbitrary moral facts could emerge from a set contingent constants that vary from one universe to the next.

So now we move beyond the physical universe, should we keep reiterating the dilemma ad infinitum?   But that is just to reject that there could be an objective standard for morality.  Another option is that we are led to some kind of atheistic Platonic moral realism, i.e. that moral values are real abstract objects that we can apprehend.  There are a few serious problems with this view.  First, abstract objects do not seem to have causal powers to obligate concrete people, yet moral facts seem to obligate us.  Second, there is far less scientific evidence for the existence of Platonic forms than there is for God, so if the atheist prefers atheistic Platonic moral realism to theism, the atheist is using special pleading.  There would be a double standard of skepticism towards God, but not to “the form of the Good” whatever that might be.  And third, there are excellent Aristotelian objections to this naive form of Platonism, which indicate that form is not a substance in and of itself (to be fair Plato thought of these objections too, cf. The Parmenides).  The most prominent of these problems is the so called “third-man” argument.  The third man argument draws out yet another regress between the abstract universal forms and particular expressions of those forms.  If any particular action is good, it would be good insofar as it is comparable to the form of the Good per se.  But the good action and the good itself are comparable only if there is a third essence common between them.  Repeat ad infinitum.  Needless to say, I think there is a form of the Good, but that it must be a substantial form that both obligates moral creatures and orders all things to It. . . You might guess what one word I would use to describe this substantial “form of the Good”.

The atheist is caught.  If the atheist wants to argue for the objectivity of morals, then the he must argue for a terminus to my “Euthyphro regress”. This means that the atheistic moral objectivist will have to argue that there is an escape from between the horns, an option which he so readily denies to his theistic counterpart.  And he will have to say that this escape occurs within the natural order, or in some Platonic form.  But I have given good reason to think neither will succeed.

I think Craig is right when he says that God is the least arbitrary stopping point.  If God exists, then as the greatest conceivable being, God would be the essence and substance of goodness, and not just an abstraction or reflection thereof.  Thus theism is perfectly consistent with a terminus to this “Euthyphro regress”.   Rather than being deadly to the first premise of the moral argument, I think we can see that the Euthyphro dilemma makes the first premise of the moral argument more reasonable than the alternatives.  So if the atheist is to escape the conclusion of the moral argument, he will have to reject the objectivity of morality.


Craig, W.L. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Faith and Apologetics. 3rd ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

Feser, E. 2008. The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism. South Bend, Ind: St. Augustine Press.

Rachels, J. and Rachels, S. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. 6th ed. Burr Ridge, IL: McGraw Hill. (Not the latest ed.)