4/15/2009

NEVER WORSHIP A GOD WHO ISN'T BETTER THAN YOU ARE

A regular reader writes about what is now being termed the Sandra Cantu killing. It's a pretty grim story, and my correspondent is troubled:

You and I have earlier engaged in discourses about religion, and you know that I am an admirer of your entirely sane and reasonable comments at Pharyngula. I submit to you a question: if religion does not/cannot prevent such an event from taking place - let alone decide and impress what is right and wrong, and if the so-called omnipotent and omniscient God cannot do a thing, what is the purpose of the existence of such religion, and why would one venerate such a God and burden oneself with theological contemplation?

Well, this is actually several questions.

Religion, of course, cannot prevent such tragedies. But is it in religion's nature to promote such tragedy? Much is being made of the alleged murderer's role as a Sunday School teacher, but I see no reason to believe that this is a substantive part of the whole affair. It was a job arranged for her by her grandfather, a church pastor, and the news article hints that she has a troubled history. Did some misguided belief lead her to kill, or (as seems more likely) is this simply a case of a human being who happens to be employed by a church acting very badly?

It certainly seems to be part and parcel of human nature that our most cherished institutions are ultimately corruptible. For an up-to-the-minute example, consider the confession of former Bishop (and now President of Paraguay) Fernando Lugo. With almost unbelievable thoroughness, the 46-year-old Lugo has seemingly betrayed his church, his country and pretty much everyone he has ever had any meaningful relationship, including his teenage mistress. Compared to Lugo, the tawdry antics of Bill Clinton seem tame by comparison.

But, whatever its' flaws as a human institution, religion certainly claims the magisterium of truth where right and wrong are concerned, and last time I checked, I'm pretty sure that most religions would certify the alleged conduct of Melissa Huckaby as being not merely wrong or misguided, but wicked. Presumably, the God the various faithful worship would similarly condemn the senseless murder of children . . . .but then, as my correspondent notes, this (presumably) all-powerful and all-knowing being doesn't seem to act on these nobler impulses. You would think that if the God of the Bible would rein in the homicidal impulses of anyone, it would be the young woman who leads a Bible study of His Word. But that manifestly didn't happen. If there is a God, he allowed someone to kill a little girl, and the authorities think it's the pastor's granddaughter.

Who would want to worship a God that allowed that to happen?

Well, no one with any sense. I would not venerate a God who failed to save a single child, when the exercise of his power would be the just and righteous thing to do. I believe that if it was in my power, I would've attempted to save the child, even to the point that I might put myself at risk, and I would like to think that I would have been justified in doing so, regardless what I or any of the other actors in this thought experiment might believe about this or that.

But here's the thing: the only reason that I could make that or other choices is that I am free, or at least have the illusion that I am free to act. Phenomenology be damned, I behave as if I am free, and so does everyone else. My correspondent's question only makes sense if I am truly free to choose: otherwise, this good and evil, right-and-wrong stuff is just so much cultural convention and biological impuse. If I am not truly free, then Melissa Huckaby is not truly free, either. We are but slaves, and we can rail against the injustice of the divine slavemaster, but it is all artifice. If every little mite and every little mote, that floats evanescent and unrefined, is the perilous plaything, the terrible toy of the mind of God, then the question is not whether or not such a God is worthy of worship, but why he lets some of his slaves believe and others of his slaves be non-believers.

Alternatively, God does not exist, and we must console ourselves with the knowledge that we can pretend that we are free agents even though evidence and reason argue against it.

I find both of those views equally bleak and uncertain. Bleak, because they deny that we are truly free to choose. Uncertain, because they reflect an unwarranted confidence in our accounts of both ethics and epistemology. A God who will routinely intervene to prevent all manner of pain and suffering is surely a far greater tyrant than the parochial God of the Israelites, and His action would rob us of the freedom to meaningfully reject him as tyrant, much less play his game. Further, we do not have the foresight such that we can assume that the course of action not taken is the best course. We rage bitterly at the recalcitrant deity who can't lift even one cosmic finger to save a little girl, but we can not in fact know what the consequences of that act would be down the road.

It's a pickle. Ultimately the real question is not why God doesn't intervene to eliminate individual cases of pain and suffering, but why there should be any pain or suffering in the first place. And I frankly 'burden myself with theological contemplation' precisely because I am interested in the latter question. But I've written enough heavy things for one post, and so I'll continue this some other time.

12 comments:

R. Moore said...

Hey, nice to see a post on the problem of evil. You are one of the few believers I know willing to risk your belief to consider it.
And you are correct, the alleged is a murderer who taught Sunday School. She is not a Sunday school teacher who murders.

I am not going to hold you to a high philosophical standard here, you and I both know the greatest minds have only wrestled this one to a draw. I will note one thing however:

You said:
I find both of those views equally bleak and uncertain. Bleak, because they deny that we are truly free to choose. Uncertain, because they reflect an unwarranted confidence in our accounts of both ethics and epistemology.
As a theist, yes, this leaves you a bleak and uncertain place. You have my sympathies.

As an atheist, I don't understand what the fuss is about. It certainly doesn't bother the dolphins. The problem of evil is not a problem for the non-believer. Evil is a problem of course, but not the problem of evil

(Isn't the English language great? I was pondering today how on-line game playing is not the same as playing a game on-line).

"Never worship a God who isn't better than you are". I could shorten that to my motto "Never worship a God", but poor Sandra Cantu would still be dead, and I definitely can't blame God for that, can I?

Peace.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Richard, thoughtful comment, as always.

As a non-believer, I agree theodicy poses no personal grief for you. But you concede that evil is a problem.

Can you confidently form the judgement that evil truly exists,yet remain undisquieted in the slightest by the suggestion that you are not truly free, when you manifestly require some degree of freedom to make such judgements? I'm unclear on this point. We are often told that we should not leap from statements of fact to statements of value in some circles, but this seems a clear exception on this point.

If you are comfortable with the idea that you are ultimately not a free agent, then isn't whatever moral code you attempt to follow reducible to programming? I often hear Christians maintain the insulting position that morality is not possible without God. I would say that the Skinnerian move to go 'beyond freedom and dignity', what might be called (literally) the demoralizing position, is even more problematic. You can have social mores, but you can not truly have ethical behavior if you are not free to choose. I think the question of human freedom is one of interest and concern to theists and non-theists alike, and once that concern becomes foundational, something that must be grappled with by anyone interested in the question of whether Big Sky Daddy exists.

Ay. It seems more than ironic to wish either of us 'peace' after raising all of these bugaboos. I'll say,instead, thanks for being such a thoughtful and engaged person.

Your friend...Scott

R. Moore said...

Scott asked:

Can you confidently form the judgement that evil truly exists,yet remain undisquieted in the slightest by the suggestion that you are not truly free, when you manifestly require some degree of freedom to make such judgements? I'm unclear on this point.
Good question, and I have given this much thought. I use a completely different framework for thinking through such dilemmas though -- I prefer non-Aristotelian logic, using Bayesian probability calculations, and axiom ranking using the ideas of Cox.

What does all that mean? What you call free will, I call the personal assignment of relative probabilities to an axiom. The "free will" choice to make such an assignment is the result of a "previous" assignment of probabilities to an earlier axiom. This of course is just a recursive algorithm, the question is "under what conditions does the recursion terminate?"

You have terminated it with God. That is an unreasonable choice for me, as I can find no basis for it, it is an arbitrary stopping point. I let the recursion continue, conceptually, until all information in our universe has been included. If we ignore multiverses, perhaps this is a stopping point? Perhaps in fact, we can call this stopping point God?

No, because an algorithm cannot contain all of the information it encodes.(this is a well proven theorem, verified by both mathematics and physics). God cannot be part of the universe, and be the universe at the same time.

Put another way, the mere concept of free will is an invention that follows from the dilemma posed by the premise of a creator.

Let me ask -- does a human baby "choose" to be born? Did the parents exercise free will in the "creation" of the baby? No, the baby is merely the result of the assignment of a very long chain of Bayesian probabilities. But none of these assignments were based on any real probabilities, like a coin toss. They were all the result of relative probabilities assigned in the past.

One cannot make a choice when "choices" do not actually exist, only the relative, personal decisions to accept one axiom over another.

Wow, is this a mess, or what?

I talked with Loren Pankratz about the free will problem, posing the following scenario: God creates Adam, just Adam, on a flat plain of nothingness. God now has a choice -- to decide whether to give Adam one law-- "Thou shalt not spit!". For some reason, known only to God, this is a major no-no.

If God decides to not tell Adam the law, and Adam spits, is this an act of free will? No, because their is relative probability, because Adam is not making a choice. If God decides to tell Adam the law, he now is making a choice. But note, the free will choice only arose because of the existence of God. Before, it was just Adam clearing his throat from dust.

And to make matters worse, God is either making Bayesian choices about delivering the law, or he knows the probabilities of the outcome, which means Adam is not operation under free will, but predetermined probabilities. Loren decided the answer was God is making Bayesian decisions.

I leave it to you whether a Bayesian God is actually a God at all.

Ok, I've gone on too long.

If we can't have peace, maybe when have Respite.

R. Moore said...

Scott --

Reading though my post, I realize the rambling has obscured the meaning. Here is what I am trying to say:

1. Free will, carrying determinate outcomes is an invention that arises from the dilemma presented when one accepts the premise that God exists. This concept is self-defeating.

2. The choice between free will and determinism is a false one. Systems of non-deterministic logic exist, and by their very nature, no choice outcome can be assigned any relative goodness/badness when weighed against the entire system. In fact, no choices are ever actually made. (Reject Aristotle, things are not true/false, things are merely an infinite number of probabilities lying on a line between 0 and 1. The laws of contradiction and the excluded middle are not accepted).


3. I can demonstrate this by the existence of many such Bayesian systems. The Commodities market, your email spam filter, etc. I like to make the leap that the universe is also such a thing. I can be criticized for this.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Let me ask -- does a human baby "choose" to be born? Did the parents exercise free will in the "creation" of the baby? No, the baby is merely the result of the assignment of a very long chain of Bayesian probabilities. But none of these assignments were based on any real probabilities, like a coin toss. They were all the result of relative probabilities assigned in the past.If I understand 'assignment' here, you are not talking about a person choosing to assign something, you are just saying in effect that 'this is what happened out of all the things that could've happened, and this particular assignment had a certain probability at the time that it occurred.' But, in point of fact, parents do seem to labor under the conviction that they can choose to 'labor' (carry the pregnancy to term), or no. It seems rather glib to ascribe every aspect of a human being's existence to probability. Can the fact that we ascribe probabilities mean that we can no longer distinguish between 'randomness' and 'choice'? As I understand it, part of the point of Bayesian statistics is to give a more accurate, albeit counter-intuitive probability function to what is and isn't truly random, so I'm pretty sure the distinction remains.

One cannot make a choice when "choices" do not actually exist, only the relative, personal decisions to accept one axiom over another.Again, I have questions about how this works. I suppose we could conceptualize fertilization as one possible result of a probability distribution, implantation in the uterus as another, average driving time to hospital of choice as another and so forth. But it seems to me that most human choices are, to put it mildly, bimodal in distribution even if the possible outcomes of that choice are not.

I admit that the calculus as you describe it terminates, for all practical purposes, with the one universe known to exist, our own. Theism adds an additional layer, an 'onion skin' if you will, to causation, but the burden of proof should be on theists to demonstrate how that extra layer adds anything to the onion's substantive properties (taste, odor, etc.). If it doesn't affect the onion in any meaningful way, why bother with it? It would be, as you say, an arbitrary addition.

(stares, with a look of distaste, at metaphor flailing in text)

I knew there was a reason I don't like raw onion....:)

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

I like to make the leap that the universe is also such a thing. I can be criticized for this.I think I would have to know a lot more about Bayesian statistics to make that judgement.

I will say this: mathematical objects tend to have a life of their own in the minds of the individuals who best understand them and can appreciate their true elegance. But they are models, and there is no rule that actually requires nature to actually embody, say, a perfect circle. If our universe is conceptualized as a vast probability distribution of the sort favored in Bayesian analysis, you gain a certain formal consistency but you still face Godel's dilemma. Undecidable propositions outside the axioms you invoke will continue to exist at a higher scale.

I suppose that's preferable to having a bunch of 'undecidables' in every day life, but still....

kausikdatta said...

Hello, Mr. Hatfield! That is a fascinating exchange between Richard and you at many levels. One point: I think I understand what Richard meant by the Bayesian probabilities of baby-making. Scott, perhaps you are reading his statement a tad wrongly? The parents may have exercised free will in cohabitating, the mother may have exercised free will in carrying the fetus to term - but neither invalidate the hypothesis that the actual fusion of the gametes (that will eventually make the baby) is a probabilistic event. The sheer number of physiological events involved in the process (that can, and sometimes do, go wrong) of creating and maintaining pregnancy makes it so, don't you think?

However, let me step back slightly from this discussion of free will and determinism. I submit that evil is as evil does; that is, an action will be evil if its impact is one of harm, hurt, injustice without any redeeming feature, particularly if motivated by irrationality. I understand that these are loaded words, but how one defines the harm/hurt etc. in the context of an individual, a group of people, or the society as a whole, determines the level (or gradation) of evil. To me it also means that almost everything is a shade of gray, rather than strictly black and white.

If that is true, then religion is seeking to impose a false dichotomy by ascribing strict definitions of good and evil. And because of that very reason, in situations which have many spectra of the human mind in action, religion confuses and contradicts itself, ultimately falling upon the undefined quantity of god to save itself. Because god is not a testable hypothesis that lends itself to empirical analysis, anything can be ascribed to 'god and his inscrutable ways' - as a justification of any damn thing.

In essence, then, religion, beyond its superficial role as a simple moral code, is absolutely ineffective in dealing with real life problems. Years of Sunday school teaching have clearly not inculcated any of the human values in Ms. Huckaby that she herself professed to teach younger kids. Neither has the non-existent god struck her down with lightning or something (a la Zeus), or prevented the kid from dying a sad death.

Why, then, do we need such constructs as religion and god to lead our lives? A moral, ethical code to live by can indeed be secular and non-partisan. Why do we - as human beings - have to be bothered by the unwholesome burden of religion?

R. Moore said...

Scott -- we probably have not real disagreement here, but I will offer more, because this subject is worthy of extended discussion.

It you were to drop a glass over a concrete floor, would you say it has a high probability of hitting the ground? You might say yes if nothing else intervened. Maybe some one catches it, etc. So in Bayesian terms, the probability of the glass hitting the ground must reflect the probability of a person catching it. And recursively, that probability must be evaluated in terms of the probabilities that determine it, and so on.

But there is another probability at play, and that is the probability that gravity will act in its normal matter. A very high probability I would suggest. Much greater than someone suddenly appearing to snatch the glass from certain destruction.

What I am getting at, is that a person can only be responsible for outcomes of decisions for which they have knowledge of the relative probabilities of those factors contributing the outcome.

So yes, you have to pay for the glass.

But how many things are as certain as gravity? To tread on sensitive ground here -- I am only doing this because of the matter at hand -- the death of Sandy Cantu, evaluated by someone for whom death has a certain finality has one meaning in a Bayesian sense. To someone who believes Sandy Cantu to now be in heaven, in eternal bliss, the outcome of her tragedy has a complete different meaning, arrived at by a completely different weighting of the Bayesian probabilities involved. Which is the "better" outcome?

And returning to free will, and my God/Adam example. When God tells Adam the "no spitting" law, he has a very good idea of the probable outcome. (I would, having raised children). If the outcome is highly predetermined, then how is Adam's spitting an act of free will? If God intervenes, stops Adam's spit from hitting the ground, Adam's free will is not affected, he could not foresee that outcome, all that is different is we can now adjust the Bayesian probabilities of the event for the next time (if you break the law and spit, God may catch it. What are the probabilities of what happens next? Stay tuned).

If these seems hopeless and bleak to you, I can understand, I think because of the hidden premise you hold that you want God to exist. I can place no positive or negative value on that myself, it is a result of your Bayesian past. It may increase the probability of enjoyment of life for you, a good thing, I think.

But for those of us who see no benefit to the premise, we arrive at our own Bayesian existence. It does not seem to bother us too much, like the dolphins.

R. Moore said...

Scott --

Reading back through, I noticed something you highlighted:

My correspondent's question only makes sense if I am truly free to choose: otherwise, this good and evil, right-and-wrong stuff is just so much cultural convention and biological impuse. If I am not truly free, then Melissa Huckaby is not truly free, either. We are but slaves, and we can rail against the injustice of the divine slavemaster, but it is all artifice.
I think this highlights that the need for free will originates not naturally, but because of the premise of the existence of God. The opposite of free will, if God exists, must be slavery, as I can imagine no other source for man's actions (unless Satan maybe, I don't hear that one too much).

But remove the requirement for God's existence, and man's actions are the results of Bayesian decisions. The "cultural conventions and biological impulses" as you put it are not the basis for the decisions, but the outcomes (because in recursive Bayesian logic, all outcomes without 100% probability are fed back into the process. 100% probability ends the recursion, only possible in mathematics and philosophy). This is not slavery, I think, since it is not determinism. But I might be creating a false syllogism here.

I am the one introducing the God/free will connection, I know, you spoke in more general terms. But that is the interesting framing, I think.

Here is the crux of the problem, as I see it:

Under which concept, free will, given by God, or a godless Bayesian existence, do we derive our right to punish the murderer Sandra Cantu?

How would such a right derive from the free will position, if such a position only exists out a need to avoid determinism? Unlike the Bayesian position, it has no social or cultural value, arrived at by centuries of recursive experience. It is not evaluated in terms of the happiness and and continuation of the human species, but merely as the opposite of robotic slavery.

You could relax your earlier dichotomy and say free will results in a rejection of determinism and also brings happiness, etc, but you could have happiness with determinism, as long as you were unaware of it. God could create a "Stepford" wife world of the lion lying down with the lamb, and no one would suffer for it, not being any the wiser.

And happiness without determinism is called -- Bayesian existence, without God.

I close with this: we will catch (if we have not already) the killer of Sandra Cantu. We will convict them, and put them to death. We will do that following without any reference to free will, but merely the laws of our state, arrived at through a Bayesian process.

And I will disagree with the result, because I am against the death penalty, because my Bayesian viewpoint rejects assigning a 100% probability to a person's guilt.

But I will agree to the murder's imprisonment, because the outcomes of his/her actions hurting others were highly probable, with a low probability of justification. When this is done on purpose, for personal gain, I call it, for lack of a better word, evil. Our laws, written by us all, for the betterment of all, reflect this.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

The sheer number of physiological events involved in the process (that can, and sometimes do, go wrong) of creating and maintaining pregnancy makes it so, don't you think?Oh, I agree. Chance is involved in all purely biological processes. The question is whether rational agents exist, and the ultimate effectiveness of reason as a tool in all domains. Richard is arguing not for the sort of certainty that many partisans desire, but for a probabilistic account of rational agency. I'm afraid that I will need to learn a lot more about Bayesian statistics before I can weigh in on this strategy.

As for religion, as a human institution it seems to me no more or less effecting than other institutions in meeting certain human needs. I suspect that what you really find superfluous is not an institution that provides psychological supports or group cohesion, but rather the element of faith embedded within the enterprise.

benjdm said...

Alternatively, God does not exist, and we must console ourselves with the knowledge that we can pretend that we are free agents even though evidence and reason argue against it.Have you read the compatibilist versions of free will or choice and found them unsatisfactory?

I'm thinking of things like Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

I haven't read any Dennett in more than ten years. I know that he defends an account of free will and that it's controversial (Dennett seems to invite it, in whatever he discusses). I enjoyed his tweaking of Gould in 'Darwin's Dangerous Idea' and I find his notion of 'heterophenomenolgy' in 'Consciousness Explained' useful, but I haven't gone beyond that.

(sigh)

Something else to add to the reading list besides Richard's Bayesian statistics, I suppose.