Thursday, March 26, 2015

About the problem of evil

The Auschwitz concentration camp
In a previous article on the hunting hymenoptera I mentioned the problem of evil, often called the problem of pain, the well-known title of a book by CS Lewis. Although this question is mainly ethical or philosophical, it also has some relationship with science, as will be seen at the end of this post.
We can consider two different types of the problem of evil:
  1. Human evil, caused by man. The Auschwitz concentration camp has become its most mentioned paradigm.
  2. Natural pain, the fact that natural processes can cause severe pain to humans and other living beings.
Although the problem of human evil is actually a pseudo-problem, it has been used by atheists to prove that God does not exist with an argument similar to this one:
If there were a good God, he would not have allowed Auschwitz (for example). As Auschwitz happened, a good God does not exist.
This argument is very easy to disprove. At the creation of our universe, God had to choose between two possibilities: populate it with free intelligent beings, or with mere puppets with no choice. In the former case, human evil is inevitable; in the second, it wouldn’t exist. The answer to the argument is this: If you were in God’s place and could create intelligent beings, would you make them free or puppets? As a researcher in the field of artificial life, I am sure that I would chose the first, for the latter would not be interesting.
A further consequence of the problem of human evil is the problem of divine justice: evil should be punished in some way. Every religion has chosen a different solution to this problem. The religions of India, for instance, believe that the evil we do in this life will be punished in our next reincarnation. Judaism held that the sins of fathers are visited upon their children. Christianity offers a different solution: God became man and died to take on himself the consequences of all the evil that we have ever caused.
The problem of natural pain is more complicated, because usually we cannot blame man. Atheists use it frequently as an argument against the existence of God, with a very similar formulation to the previous one:
If there were a good God, he would not allow so much pain in nature. As there is much pain, a good God does not exist.
In the post on hunting hymenoptera I mentioned two possible answers to the problem of pain in nature. A more drastic approach to the problem has been offered by the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who uses the problem of pain to prove the existence of God with an argument like this one:
Alvin Plantinga
In this world there is appalling and horrifying evil, when the act itself is horrible. Those evils are recognized as horrible by every huma being, atheist or believer. But if God does not exist, the concept of a horrifying evil makes no sense. Ergo God exists.
Is it true that the concept of horrifying evil makes no sense if God does not exist? First, let us consider that science by itself cannot reach ethical conclusions. Science deals exclusively with facts and explanations of the facts, so it works exclusively with indicative sentences: this is so; this explains that. Elementary logic tells us that, from two premises in the indicative mode, it is impossible to draw a conclusion in the imperative. Science cannot deduce or induce an ethical principle. Ethics is beyond the scope of science. To reach ethical conclusions, we need premises in the imperative mode: do this; don’t do that. Where do they come from? Natural selection? Do we have ethical standards because they are good for our survival? But then horrifying evil (an evil independent from our species) would not exist. All those evils used by atheists in their argument against God’s existence would not be true evils. A wasp causing pain to a worm (if it really does cause it) would not affect our survival and wouldn’t be evil. So the atheist argument is a blatant case of anthropocentrism and does not hold water.


Manuel Alfonseca

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