ZaoThanatoo Answers the Argument from Horrific Suffering (Guest Post)

Argument from Horrific Suffering

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).

Chris Bolt and Mitch Leblanc have been carrying on a discussion surrounding J. L. Schellenberg’s Antitheistic Argument from Horrors.  The full exchange (to date) is linked here.  As I’m occasionally wont, I’d like to throw my hat in the ring… now which hat will I choose…

The objective fact of suicide alone would appear to give some validity to Schellenberg’s subject-based definition of Horrific Suffering (HS):

“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.”

Schellenberg’s argument:

(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)

Notice the strong modal claims of the first five premises (i.e. “Necessarily, if God exists…).  Admittedly, I have not read Schellenberg’s chapter as of yet, but I would be interested in seeing his argumentation establishing the necessity of these premises.  At the very least it would give us a sketch of the sort of theology being targeted by the argument (while also giving us more than the mere assertion of necessity).  Also, if the necessity of any of the premises can be reasonably denied then the entire argument is overturned.  However, this is only a formal criticism and I’d rather respond more substantially.

It’s difficult to evaluate what is intended by the phrase taken from the first premise: “Finite persons who ever more fully experience the reality of God realize their deepest good.”  Mitch has offered his own interpretation for consideration:

“To experience the reality of God, in the context of this argument, is to be in a personal relationship with the creator of the cosmos. A relationship of the type theists mention often. It is a being as aware of the existence of God as a child is aware of his or her loving mother. That such an experience occurs in the ‘ever more fully’ sense is to simply point out that given the infinite complexity of God, there will always be more about God for some finite human person to know. That is, if God exists and is as awesome as theists often claim, it is difficult to see how any finite human person can exhaust the things there are to know about God, or exhaust the feelings there are to be had about God, or exhaust the myriad of forms a personal relationship with her (sic) might take. It is indeed doubtful that these things can be exhausted in the context of human-to-human relationships, let alone human-to-divine relationships.  Indeed such an experience of God’s reality might manifest itself in different ways to different persons; perhaps we should even expect such a thing given God’s infinite resourcefulness, creativity, and the existence of unique individuals…  I am speaking here of, in many ways, an experience of God that unfolds throughout eternity and is such that, given God’s infinite resourcefulness and creativity, the fruits of which are inexhaustible by the finite human person.”

I like this attempt at definition.  I appreciate an atheist attempting to give a definition which reflects his reading of various theistic claims.  At several points I think it’s quite insightful.  I particularly like this part: “It is indeed doubtful that these things can be exhausted in the context of human-to-human relationships, let alone human-to-divine relationships.  Indeed such an experience of God’s reality might manifest itself in different ways to different persons; perhaps we should even expect such a thing given God’s infinite resourcefulness, creativity, and the existence of unique individuals.”

I’ll be referring back to this section of Mitch’s definition shortly, when I attempt to present what I contend is a more biblically faithful way of responding to Schellenberg’s argument.  However, Mitch has already raised the objection that the use of Scripture in this regard is question-begging:

“(Schellenberg’s) argument, however, has as its conclusion that there is no God, so Chris must be careful not to beg the question against the argument by reasoning in a manner that assumes the conclusion false, to show the conclusion false.”

It seems appropriate, then, to respond to this objection before presenting my case.

Mitch contends that one must not assume that God exists (A) in order to disprove the above conclusion that God does not exist (~A).  This, he asserts, is question-begging.  However, for anyone wishing to criticize the conclusion, the alternative is to assume that God does not exist in order to argue that he does.  This is self-contradictory.  We must either assume God exists or God does not exist (A or ~A, Excluded Middle) in presenting our reasoning.  But assuming ~A to prove A is self-contradictory and assuming A to prove ~~A Mitch asserts is question-begging. 

What options remain for the Christian theist? 

(1)   We can grant that Schellenberg’s argument is completely unassailable; but this entails atheism.

(2)   We can reject the logical principle of the excluded middle; but this leaves us with many-valued, non-classical logics and the host of truth gap/glut issues surrounding that option. 

(3)   We can tie ourselves in philosophical knots attempting to assume ~A in order to prove A. 

(4)   We can reject Mitch’s assertion that assuming A in order to prove ~~A is question-begging in this instance.

I choose (4) for a number of reasons.  I’ve given Mitch one reason for this in the past (see point 1 under “Circular reasoning and a Euthyphro dilemma analog”), namely that there is an equal ultimacy to the criticism; given the comprehensive nature of the question of the Christian God’s existence, Schellenberg’s argument either assumes A or ~A in an effort at proving ~A.  But lest Mitch think this is merely a tu quoque response, I’m attempting to elevate the conversation by recognizing the epistemic role which properly basic beliefs or ultimate presuppositions (call them what you like) play in dealing with issues such as the problem of horrific suffering. 

As R. M. Chisholm recognized in his Theory of Knowledge the “problem of the criterion” (i.e. the relation of metaphysics and epistemology, “What do we know?” and “What are the criteria for knowing?”), as he put it, is the interdependence of metaphysics and epistemology.  The question of “what do we know” (e.g. Does God exist?) cannot be answered in isolation from the question “what are the criteria for knowing” (e.g. How do we know God exists?) and vice versa.  As Chisholm states in The Problem of Criterion, “What few philosophers have had the courage to recognize is this: we can deal with the problem only by begging the question.  It seems to me that, if we do not recognize this fact, as we should, then it is unseemly for us to try to pretend that it isn’t so.” (p. 37)

So I “courageously” beg the question in favor of Christian theism and Mitch unadmittingly begs the question in favor of antitheism.  What’s to be done to bridge this gap?

Well, until Mitch recognizes this to be the nature of the case he will probably continue to beg ultimate questions while accusing various theists of begging the same questions; and we’ll occasionally remind him about it.  If Mitch does decide to elevate the discussion, we’ll be here waiting.  Until then, he’s begging the question. 😀

Another alternative would be to present a transcendental argument of some kind, attempting to demonstrate that even a skeptic’s skepticism presupposes the existence of God or something to that effect.  For examples, email Chris Bolt. 😀

With that issue set to one side, I’d like to briefly propose (like a “good Calvinist”) that the biblical doctrine of unconditional election presents an expansion of the definition given by Mitch above, which makes horrific suffering compatible with God’s existence.

(Note: I love little puns like “good Calvinist,” i.e. in order to be a Calvinist one must believe all people are totally depraved morally, so there are only “totally depraved Calvinists,” but if Chris is a consistent Calvinist then he might be described as “good” in that sense.  Good pun, Mitch.)

In Premise 1 we are told “Necessarily, if God exists, finite persons who ever more fully experience the reality of God realize their deepest good.”  Let’s break this down quickly for definitional purposes.  We’ll take “finite persons” to be, well, finite persons.  Finite persons who “ever more fully experience the reality of God” are people living life.  Every day every finite person existing ever more fully experiences the reality of God in various ways and to varying degrees, but every aspect of life is an experience of God in one way or another.  “Realizing their deepest good” means simply that they glorify God; and one may glorify God through either salvation or judgment.

So while Mitch’s definition is good, it is incomplete, as he stated: “…Indeed such an experience of God’s reality might manifest itself in different ways to different persons.”  Indeed, some people may realize their “deepest good” (glorifying God) through horrific suffering under the judgment of God for their sins.  So, given the above definitions, Premise 2 is false since certain persons glorify God most fully by suffering horrifically under judgment for their sins; and preventing that category of people from suffering would prevent them from “realizing their deepest good.”

In fact, it is through the horrific suffering of Jesus Christ that finite persons realize their deepest good by glorifying God through salvation rather than judgment.


4 Comments

taco

“So while Mitch’s definition is good, it is incomplete, as he stated”

Thanks for noticing this too!

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