Argument from Horrific Suffering
The exchange has taken place as follows: The Argument from Horrific Suffering for the Non-Existence of God (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering (Chris) / Bolt and Horrific Suffering (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 2 (Chris) / Bolt and Horrific Suffering II (Mitch) / Answering the Argument from Horrific Suffering 3 (Chris) / Bolt and Horrific Suffering III (Mitch) / …Answers the Argument from Horrific Suffering (ZaoThanatoo).
Mitch notes that I am still challenging premise (4) of the following argument:
Horrific Suffering (def.) = that most awe-full form of suffering that gives the victim and/or the perpetrator a prima facie reason to think that his or her life is not worth living.
(1) Necessarily, if God exists, finite persons who ever more fully experience the reality of God realize their deepest good.
(2) Necessarily, if God exists, the prevention of horrific suffering does not prevent there being finite persons who ever more fully experience the reality of God.
(3) Necessarily, if God exists, the prevention of horrific suffering does not prevent there being finite persons who realize their deepest good. (from 1, 2)
(4) Necessarily, if God exists, there is horrific suffering only if its prevention would prevent there being finite persons who realize their deepest good.
(5) Necessarily, if God exists, there is no horrific suffering. (from 3, 4)
(6) There is horrific suffering.
(7) God does not exist (from 5, 6)
My reason for not accepting (4) is better summarized as follows by David Byron:
One way to paraphrase (4) is to maintain that preventing finite persons from realizing their deepest good is the *only* morally sufficient justification for God’s permitting “horrific suffering”.
Why suppose that that’s the case? Why not instead suppose
“4′) Necessarily, if God exists, there is horrific suffering only if ( (its prevention would prevent there being finite persons who realize their deepest good) OR (x) ).”
where (x) is some other morally sufficient reason?
[I]f we tolerate the notion that there’s a general class of issues A about which scripture provides useful reassurance without grounding that reassurance explicitly and discursively, then there’s no strong reason to exclude the idea that x is an instance of A.
Mitch provides an answer to this as follows:
[E]ven if the existence of Horrific Suffering were a necessary condition of some very-good-other-goods such that they, perhaps in quantity, “outweighed” the non-good state of Horrific Suffering, our above analyses entail that permitting such suffering is still inconsistent with the divine nature!
Hence we must turn our attention once again to the analyses to which Mitch refers.
Mitch claims that, “In the background of the argument is the question ‘What would a perfect being do?’” However, the argument pertains to God and not necessarily a “perfect being,” thus insofar as a question like this is in the background of the argument, the question is, “What would God do?” If the Christian concept of God is in view then it is the Christian concept of God which must be evaluated in terms of what the Christian God would do. Otherwise the argument simply does not pertain to the Christian God.
Mitch believes that he has, through conceptual analysis, “presented a series of considerations for thinking that a perfect being would only permit the existence of horrific suffering if it’s prevention would prevent finite persons from realizing their deepest goods.” Could it be that Mitch’s concept of “perfect being” is not equivalent with the Christian concept of God? Consider a very similar concept addressed by Cornelius Van Til.
[W]e should be careful when we say that God is the being than whom none higher can be thought. If we take the highest being of which we can think, in the sense of have a concept of, and attribute to it actual existence, we do not have the biblical notion of God. God is not the reality that corresponds to the highest concept that man, considered as an independent being, can think. Man cannot think an absolute self-contained being; that is, he cannot have a concept of it in the ordinary sense of the term. God is infinitely higher than the highest being of which he can form a concept…When we speak of our concept or notion of God, we should be fully aware that by that concept we have an analogical reproduction of the notion that God has of himself. (Quoted in Bahnsen, Analysis, 634)
Commenting upon this quotation from Van Til, Bahnsen writes, “God has revealed to us what we are to think about Him, and thus our thoughts about God can (when faithful to His revelation) be true.”
However, God has also revealed that He is much greater than anything that we can finitely imagine. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts (without our thoughts being false or misleading). (Bahnsen, Analysis, 634, n.163)
Consider lastly Don Collett on the same subject.
One must bear in mind that on Van Til’s view of the matter, the ontological argument is ultimately incapable of doing justice to the uniquely revelational sense in which God’s existence is necessary, since it ‘proves’ a God who exists “by the same necessity as does the universe,” and thus a God who is no more than “an aspect of, or simply the whole of, the universe.” He was aware of the fact that advocates of the ontological argument, and Anselm in particular, make a distinction between two different senses of ‘necessity’ in order to distinguish God’s existence from that of the universe. For Van Til, however, this distinction is fatally undermined by the initial starting point of the argument itself. The ontological argument begins by defining God’s being as that being “than which nothing greater can be thought,” thereby identifying God’s being with humanity’s highest thought. In other words, the ontological argument begins by identifying God’s being with an order of thought and existence that is, on a biblical worldview, metaphysically contingent upon the creative decree of God. Moreover, even if a logical transfer into the realm of necessary being were possible by means of the ontological argument, such a transfer would not leave us with the biblical notion of God, a point often noted by Van Til himself. (Collett, Van Til, 10-11)
So-called “card carrying Van Tillians” then, of which I would at the moment count myself a member, do not accept the Anselmian or Cartesian concepts of God as being identical with a Scriptural concept of God. Anselm’s concept being what it is in relation to Mitch’s concept of “perfect being,” none should expect the Van Tillian to accept Mitch’s concept either.
There is another important point lurking in the quote from Van Til. Recall that he claims, “When we speak of our concept or notion of God, we should be fully aware that by that concept we have an analogical reproduction of the notion that God has of himself.” What Van Til is saying is that our concept of God is God’s concept of God. Now this in and of itself is rather interesting, for surely no one should expect a Christian, which I would at the moment say that I am, to accept a man’s concept of God over God’s concept of God, but that is precisely what Mitch is asking us to do. But this is not the lurking point I am referring to either.
Van Til notes that our concept of God is not exactly the same as God’s concept of God. It does not follow, however, that our concept of God is completely different from God’s concept of God either. Rather, Van Til states that our concept of God is, “an analogical reproduction of the notion that God has of himself.” God reveals Himself to us in Scripture by way of analogy. There has no doubt been some controversy concerning this point, but one need not be a card carrying Van Tillian to accept it either. Rather, it is a basic contention of the discipline of theology that Scripture uses a variety of illustrations to try to describe for us as humans what God is like. Now we can apply this understanding to Mitch’s notion of “perfect being” and note that, whatever we may mean by “perfect” or even “being” after the strictest conceptual analysis, it does not follow that we mean the exact same thing when that language is applied to or used of God.
Now we can begin to take apart some of the things that Mitch asserts at the end of his most recent response.
Whereas I am asking the question, “What would a perfect being do?” Chris seems to be asking the question, “What has a perfect being done?” The difference is subtle, yet illuminating in how both of us approach this, and probably many other issues in the philosophy of religion.
While for a number of reasons I am not ready to concede that I am asking, “What has a perfect being done?” not the least of which would refer us back to the discussion above, it is worth pointing out that if we are truly attempting to capture the Christian concept of God then there is nothing fallacious about reasoning in this manner. Since God’s actions are grounded in His unchanging nature, what God has done is also what He would do at least with respect to the same or even similar situations. Of course we must be very careful here with our assumptions about whether or not situations are identical or even similar to one another, but the potential problem may not be as difficult as it seems initially since we are at this point speaking of God’s relating to humanity in terms of horrific suffering and greater goods and that is a topic which Scripture repeatedly addresses.
But of greater concern are Mitch’s somewhat odd statements which follow the previous one. Mitch appears to capture what we were after in the aforementioned qualifications when he writes, “There is some initial question as to whether or not the being Bolt calls ‘God’ possesses the properties of perfection I’ve ascribed to the term.”
Many of my discussions with Christians have resulted in their looking at the Christian story and saying that particular conceptual analyses don’t line up with the Biblical conception of God. As I’ve said before, so long as our conceptual analyses are reasonable, so much the worse for the Biblical conception of God; if a God did exist, it would not be that one. While I think there are hints of this confusion occurring in Chris’ thought, I would like to thank him for not, as many confusedly and amateurishly have, done something like throw the book of Job at me or cite various parables from the Bible. It should be clear how to do so in this context, would only be to beg the question even further.
Now this is particularly puzzling to me. Either I am completely missing Mitch’s point or he is completely mistaken. If God, the Christian God, the God I am defending throughout this discussion, does not possess the properties of perfection that Mitch has ascribed to Him, as I have alluded to above, then what does the argument Mitch presents have to do with disproving the existence of the Christian God? Mitch understands the Christian’s claim that his “particular conceptual analyses don’t line up with the Biblical conception of God.” He then proceeds to reason that if his conceptual analyses are reasonable, and by that he must mean correct, then “so much the worse for the Biblical conception of God.” To this I reply, “Eh?” How is even a reasonable or correct concept that does not cohere with the concept of the biblical conception of God serve to refute the existence of that God? Mitch assumes that, “if a God did exist, it would not be that one,” but why would the referent of “that” be the Christian God if the concept in question necessary to tie the Christian concept of God to the greater argument does not in fact describe the Christian God? Perhaps I am missing something here. If Mitch’s concepts, no matter how well they fare under conceptual analysis, “don’t line up with the Biblical conception of God,” then the “Biblical conception of God” remains untouched by the original argument. Instead, it is all of those concepts of god which do “line up” with Mitch’s concepts which fall prey to the argument. The only other thing I can imagine Mitch might be saying here is that the Christian concept of God does claim some of these concepts for itself and since it claims these and yet is, as the Christian will admit, inconsistent with them as demonstrated through further analysis, then “so much the worse.” But notice that this would be a completely different argument, and not a very good one.
Any problems with Mitch applying his concept of “compassion” to the Christian God are now apparent as well. He writes, “Granting that there can exist no being more compassionate than God, if she exists, this perfect compassion coupled with perfect knowledge of what it is to undergo Horrific Suffering entails that God is, as Schellenberg puts it, maximally opposed to these sufferings.” But why does Mitch grant that God is compassionate at all? Perhaps some god is the very opposite of compassionate even in Mitch’s understanding of the matter. How would the argument then apply to that god? Well, it would not. Perhaps then Mitch is deriving his understanding of God being compassionate from Scripture, but then he runs into the problem that he is simply reading his alien understanding of compassionate into what the text means by ascribing the term to God. All of the observations which apply to the concept of “perfect being” discussed before now reapply in the case of “compassionate” and “perfect compassion.” Mitch equates “perfect compassion” with “maximal opposition to the experience of Horrific Suffering” or at least posits the latter as a consequence of the former, but I can still see no reason for doing this.
Still, depending on what Mitch (or rather Schellenberg) means by “maximal,” “Granting that God stands in maximal opposition to the experience of Horrific Suffering it is surely the case, entailed by our aforementioned analyses, that God allows persons to suffer horrifically only if such suffering is a necessary condition of these persons realizing their deepest good” is still not seen to be true. It could be the case that by “maximal” we simply mean that God is as opposed as God can be to, in this case, Horrific Suffering; but this would be true even if some of God’s other attributes served as the “limiting” factor in God’s maximal opposition. Mitch needs to clearly define what he means by “maximal” here as it does not appear to do the work that Mitch thinks it does.