05 December 2016

An Atheist and a Christian Walk into a Bar — the review, part 7 (with final thoughts)

Rauser and Schieber wrap up the book with a chapter on biological evolution and the integral role that suffering and death play in the cycle of life. Schieber argues that the fact of evolution should be surprising on theism (since God could have instantaneously brought complex life into existence), and that the ubiquity of suffering inherent to the evolutionary process poses a strong challenge to the theist concept of a maximally good creator. Why would a benevolent creator employ such a callous process?

First, a very minor nitpick with Schieber: he defines evolution as being unguided, implicitly (but not explicitly) to accommodate those who believe in the pseudoscience of intelligent design. But I've never liked the language of "unguided"; evolution is guided by survival and reproduction—the non-random selection of randomly varying genes.

Alternatives to evolution?

Rauser objects to Schieber's assertion that if atheism were true, evolution would pretty much have to be true because we're not aware of any other viable options. Rauser's objection is that "given the past track record of scientific theory failure (falsification, abandonment, etc.), we ought to withhold assent in the final correctness of neo-Darwinian evolution."

Schieber rightly objects that evolution by natural selection is far and away our best option now, but I think he could have hammered Rauser harder here. Darwinian evolution is, outside of quantum mechanics, the most robustly supported scientific theory in human history. The evidence is overwhelming and converges from countless independent fields of scientific inquiry. The probability that it will be overturned wholesale for some completely new theory is so marginal as to be pragmatically impossible. It's trivially true that all scientific knowledge is provisional, but we can also express confidence in scientific theories based on the weight of evidence. Evolution by natural selection is one that we can hold with as much confidence as reasonably possible. 

However, I'll grant Rauser a tiny bit of leeway by nitpicking Schieber here: we might not expect, on atheism, to find evolution by natural selection per se—that is, I don't think Darwin could have sat in his office like a philosopher and reasoned his way to natural selection on a presumption of atheism. But we'd certainly expect to see something like evolution by natural selection: a wholly natural process that involves both random and non-random variables and requires no outside mind or designer to guide it.

No pain, no gain

Schieber raises an argument here I hadn't considered: that even if we grant that God had decided to implement evolution by natural selection, God did not fine-tune our experience of pain to be oriented only toward survival and reproduction. We can experience many different types of pain that are not directly oriented toward those biological 'goals', from torture to being burned alive to dying slowly of a painful infection. On the atheistic view, Schieber reasons, we aren't surprised to see such phenomena because they're more or less byproducts of the messy process of evolution. On theism, God could have fine-tuned our experience of pain to mitigate needless suffering—but chose not to.

At this point, I want to recall a criticism of mine regarding Rauser's argumentation that I've mentioned a couple of times previous in this series: the notion that God could have morally sufficient reasons for allowing something to happen. Rauser is careful to concede that we don't—and don't have to—know what those reasons are; God's moral reasoning may lie permanently beyond our mortal epistemic horizon. Rauser argues this on a matter of principle.

And that is precisely the path he takes here. When Schieber suggests that it is a great burden the theist finds themselves saddled with to assume that in every instance of superfluous pain or suffering God must have a morally sufficient reason to allow (or cause) it, Rauser simply disagrees, saying "[If] God exists then it follows naturally that every evil has a moral justification." He later remarks that he is attempting to "show that theism is perfectly consistent with the evidence [Schieber provides]."

Schieber's tactic is to press Rauser to explain how the reality of suffering can be squared with the concept of a benevolent creator. But this is a hopeless tactic because, as I've discussed in earlier parts of the series, Rauser will always argue that the evidence underdetermines the existence and/or moral character of God. God's moral reasoning, so Rauser concludes, is indeed beyond our epistemic horizon—accordingly, the exact reasons for any particular observable state of reality, including the presence of gratuitous suffering, is implicitly justified by some ineffable divine motive. 

Unknowable truths

I think Schieber does effectively press Rauser toward the end of the chapter. He summarizes his argument in a wordy but poignant riposte: "once we say that we're not in a position to make judgment calls about the kinds of things God is likely to permit to occur on account of all the unknowns, we also rob ourselves of being in a position to make informed judgments that our favorite theodicy is not outweighed by other reasons within that unknown-to-us section of God's epistemic iceberg." He later expounds, "If we're to endorse this skeptical attitude about moral reasons to avoid key inference in arguments from evil, then it needs to be consistent and recognize that all we're doing is punting to mystery."

I concur strongly with Schieber here; he's very close to the conceptual arguments I've presented several times throughout this review series. Rauser's rather weak rejoinder is that we know some of God's motivations, just not all. He further argues that "whatever additional reasons God may have must be consistent with what has already been revealed." But this doesn't address the substance of Schieber's argument, and it presents a further problem.

The problem Schieber is raising is that the mystery of God's being to which Rauser frequently appeals entails that our understanding of moral good may not track with God's understanding moral good—and indeed, Rauser himself conceded this in chapter 4 in suggesting that our moral intuitions may be misguided. This concept was, incidentally, defended by my occasional interlocutor Steven Jake on his blog The Christian Agnostic in a post entitled "God is not good". In the post, he argues that our conceptualization of morality is at best analogous to God's, rather than unequivocal. He argues,
Remember that God, as classical theism has conceived of him, is not a being among beings, or an agent among agents. He is not, as many contemporary theologians have promulgated, simply a person with all good attributes maximized. That is to say, he is not a being with the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and benevolence etc. No, he is being, he is existence, he is goodness etc., and his being is his goodness which is his power which is his knowledge. So the significance of this to our discussion is that God is not a creature among creatures, or a being among beings, or a person among persons, or an agent among agents, or an existent among existents, therefore it seems that God is not one among many, and thus is not part of any moral community. This seems to entail that God is not a moral agent. That is to say, there are no moral obligations or duties that God needs to fulfill, and therefore he cannot be seen as morally virtuous nor unrighteous. Again, these terms simply don’t apply unequivocally or literally to God. God cannot be morally good or evil, the way we use these terms, any more than God can be corporeal.
My objection to Steven's post was that without an unequivocal, unambiguous conceptualization of what God's moral goodness is—that is, an unequivocal moral ontology—it's impossible to know to what extent it is dis/similar from our everyday usage of the concept. And that, quite unintentionally on his behalf, is the trap I think Rauser falls into here. Rauser wants to claim that God's reasons are ineffable, yet should track with the assumption that God is a maximally good being. But without being able to clearly define, much less have access to, God's understanding of morality, theologians have no basis for describing any of God's actions as un/justifiable simply because an unequivocal foundation of moral ontology is not there in the first place. God may be "maximally good", but even Rauser's account of moral intuitions leaves us without a confident understanding of what, exactly, "maximal good" is in the first place.

Closing thoughts on Walk into a Bar

I've greatly enjoyed reading this book, and I have to extend a generous thank you to Randal for sending me an early review copy. Randal and I have had our differences, but it heartens me that we've been able to put those differences aside and foster a relationship of mutual respect that allows for irenic, yet spirited, conversation. Both authors did a fine job in this book, and I do not think a clear winner emerges. Schieber did not approach several arguments as I would have, but I always found his arguments thought-provoking. And while it should come as no surprise that I was largely unpersuaded by Rauser's arguments, he nonetheless forced me to think through my own positions in ways I had not considered, and I gained a greater insight into the nuances of his own positions. This book is light-hearted (beware of abundant dad-humor), yet the discussion is vigorous and touches well on several topics that could themselves quite easily fill entire volumes and/or many hours of discussion. 

I hope you've enjoyed the review. Because this has been a lengthy series, I'm going to put it in a PDF document and share the link on DropBox. Stay tuned!

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