100 Answers in 100 Days

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Sharing answers to the various questions of faith I have faced, and which others have been challenged with also.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

On the logical fallacy: "God Doesn't Give Us What We Want, Therefore He Doesn't Exist."

Last year, the computer game "Disney Infinity" was released. After watching a whole bunch of YouTube videos about the game, my son has come to me begging that I buy him a copy. But this happens to come at a time when he is being disciplined for some recent misbehaviour. As punishment, I've banned him from playing computer games at all so that he can learn about consequences, and also that he might learn that people and family are more important than computers. As you can imagine, part of the problem for him, and for many children (and some adults!) is that computer gaming is a very engaging activity, and children block themselves off from normal social interaction with the people around them. And so when he asked me for Disney Infinity, I told him "Do you really think I'm going to buy you a new game while you're currently banned from the games you have?" Nevertheless, you should have seen the tantrum that ensued!

My son begged me for the game. We also happened to be at the mall where the game could be purchased. After I visited the ATM, he took a peek at my bank balance, and so he knew that I could well afford the game. There was no reason, in his mind, that I shouldn't give him the game. I loved him unconditionally, took joy in making him happy, and I had the financial means... we were even at the mall! To him, it made no sense for me to deny him the game. I had the means and surely, if I loved him, I would have the desire, but... wait, this sounds familiar...

"Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?" — 'the Epicurean paradox'.

This is said of God and evil. But something along these lines is what my son might say about his Dad and the Disney Infinity game.

"Is Dad willing to buy Disney Infinity, but not able? Then he is broke. Is he able, but not willing? Then he doesn't love me. Is he both able and willing? Then why don't I have Disney Infinity? ...".

My purpose here is to make the fallacy of the Epicurean paradox stand out. My son knows that I'm not broke. He also knows that I do love him. So then he simply asks this rhetorical question, "Then why don't I have Disney Infinity?" To me, Epicurus sounds just as childish. I don't buy my son Disney Infinity, though I'd like to, precisely because I love him. Because I love him, I'm taking a course of action to prevent him from becoming a spoilt child, and one of those self-entitled adults.

Does this parallel God? I'm not trying to say that God's purpose for evil is to prevent us from becoming spoilt and self-entitled, but rather I simply want to show the fallacy of the Epicurean argument. We can understand this human scenario where, despite being fully able to grant my son's wishes, there is a reason (possibly beyond my son's comprehension), which causes me to refrain even from the thing that I myself would rather do! So, too, God may have reason to refrain from what He would rather do, and that reason may even be beyond our comprehension; though still at our level, understandable in terms of analogies like this one.

But what really blows my mind is that atheists usually use this argument, in the category of "the Problem of Evil", to say that God doesn't even exist. That is surely non-sequitur. You might use this argument to suggest that God is evil, or that God is not all powerful, but how does it suggest that He doesn't exist? Forgive me if you're an atheist who doesn't argue this way, but I've spoken to enough atheists who do that I think it's worth mentioning. What the argument can potentially do is cause some dissonance in a theist's world view. What this means is that one can cause a theist to question his own world view by saying that the things you believe about God create a contradiction. When one identifies apparent contradictions is their own world view they strive to resolve them. One possible way to resolve the dissonance is to reject that world view altogether and replace it with another; one that does not have any apparent contradictions. To a lesser degree, we can change one of our beliefs (eg that God is all-powerful or that He is all-loving) in order to remove the contradiction. But of course, there are other ways to resolve such conflicts. We can, for example, discover new information which explains how something which may have seemed unlikely or impossible is in fact perfectly sensible. Just as my son, when he is a parent some day, may hopefully look back and see that what I did made perfect sense, having a different view of the world and knowing more about the evils of materialism and such like. Sometimes things make sense from a different perspective, but we are unable to see that perspective; not just for lack of consideration, but we may be physically or mentally limited so that we cannot possibly discover what's missing to make sense of the way we perceive things. But sometimes the problem is framed in such a way that we perceive a contradiction that doesn't actually exist, which is kind of what's happening here with Epicurus.

As I read through the Bible, I notice time and time again that God corrects the reasoning of men. In Ezekiel 18, for example, God tells the people "You say, 'The way of the Lord is not just.' Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?" And God explains how, in actual fact, God's idea of justice is far more perfect than their own view, which sees God as unjust. And in the gospels, Jesus is continually showing that what the Jewish religious leaders did and taught, which were things that they saw as truly righteous and pious, were actually quite unrighteous; as epitomized in the way they objected to the healing of the sick on the Sabbath day. (How can you call it righteous to object to the healing of the sick!?) All this to say that it just goes to show that we can consider ourselves wiser than God, even when it should seem obvious that we are thoroughly misdirected.

The unfolding of your words gives light;
it imparts understanding to the simple. (Psalm 119:130)

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