Friday, 16 December 2011

Glenn Peoples on the Evil God Challenge

I have been having an exchange with Glenn Peoples on his blog about the Evil God Challenge. Glenn thinks the problem of evil (and reverse problem of good) is neutralized by the theodicies (and reverse theodicies). Hence there's no reason provided by the vast quantities of evil/good we observe to conclude that belief in a good or evil god is unreasonable. So all Glenn has to do to show that belief in a good god is quite reasonable is, he thinks, to come up with e.g. a fairly good moral argument for the existence of God. So here's my latest comment...

Let me explain how things look from my end.

I give you what appears to be overwhelming empirical evidence against the existence of your particular God - the evidential problem of evil (e.g. hundreds of millions of years of horror before humans show up, a million plus generations of children around half of which are killed through disease and/or starvation before they reach the age of 5 before Jesus shows up, etc. etc.)

You appear to respond, in effect, by saying: (i) but we theists have all sorts of explanations for all this evil (theodicies), which I think are quite good explanations (ii) even if they are not that good, they can be supplemented by sceptical theism which I don’t rule out, so (iii) the onus is on you to show all these theodicies collectively fail and that sceptical theism is untenable, before you can say that you have provided good evidence against the existence of my God.

But the thing about the theodicies, Glenn, is that they are what Popper calls ad hoc. They lead to now new tests. Or, if they do, but the further test fails, there’s always another gerrymandered explanation for the failure that can be cooked up. Similarly, appeals to God’s mysterious ways and facts-beyond-our-ken are ad hoc. There’s no way empirically to test the claim that such facts-beyond-our-ken is indeed the correct explanation for why there’s so much evil.

Much the same intellectual strategy that you are employing to defend theism is also employed by Young Earth Creationists (YEC), conspiracy theorists, Erich von Daniken style alternative historians (aliens built the pyramids) and countless other wackos to convince themselves and their followers that what they believe cannot be so silly after all.

For of course, if I present a series of evidence-based arguments against YEC, its proponents can say, “Ah, but we have some, we think, quite good explanations of the order of the fossil record, for light from distant stars, etc. - hundreds of such explanations in fact” (explanations cooked up at the Institute for Creation Research and other multi-million dollar funded “research” institutions), and (ii) in any case, God might have his mysterious reasons for arranging the fossils, etc. like that, so (iii) the onus is on you to show all these YEC-type explanations collectively fail and that such appeals to God’s mysterious reasons is untenable, before you can say that the facts to which you point provide good evidence against YEC.

Of course, when we then try to show the failings of the YEC explanations offered, the proponent of YEC can always gerrymander up yet more explanations, and then even more, thereby continuing to make their theory “fit” the evidence. They thus render their theory empirically unfalsifiable (this is the strategy I call “But it Fits!” in my book Believing Bullshit).

But that is, indeed, all bullshit, isn’t it? The fact is, YEC IS pretty straightforwardly falsified by the available empirical evidence, notwithstanding the possibility of endlessly explaining that evidence away by ad hoc means and/or appeals to mystery. Most of us can see that straightaway (those of us whose minds have not been captured by YEC, that is). The endless ad hoc-ery and mystery-mongering is just a smokescreen.

The onus is clearly not on us to refute all the explanations on offer by the YECs. In fact that’s an impossible task given the ad hoc character of their explanations and the fact they're prepared to keep constructing them ad nauseum. It’s entirely reasonable for us to insist that the available empirical evidence DOES indeed very effectively undermine YEC, and that it does so precisely because the YECs’ method of explaining it away is so hopelessly ad hoc.

This is why, before we are presented with any argument FOR classical theism or YEC that might be furnished to save or support the theory, it is indeed entirely reasonable to conclude, on the basis of the kind of observational evidence outlined, that classical theism/YEC is false.

POSTSCRIPT. Glenn has responded with three points, to which I've responded. Here's the points with my responses...
PPS 18th Dec. I have now expanded the explanations below because they were too sketchy.

Hi Glenn

my quick response to your three comments.

First, here's what an ad hoc hypothesis actually is (as Popper and I use the term). It's a hypothesis introduced to save a theory from refutation, a hypothesis that is not independently testable.

Illustration. The Aristotelean cosmology said the heavenly bodies are perfectly spherical. Galileo observed mountains on the moon through his telescope. One Aristotelean attempted to save his theory by insisting there was an invisible substance on the moon that covered the mountains, making it perfectly spherical. This theory-saving hypothesis was ad hoc because (at the time) it was untestable.

Not all theory-saving hypotheses are ad hoc. Newton's theory of universal gravitation predicted a smooth orbit for Uranus. Uranus was observed to have a wobbly orbit. To save Newton's theory, scientists introduced the hypothesis that there was a further planet tugging Uranus out of orbit. This new hypothesis was not ad hoc as it led to new tests - astronomers looked at where the mystery planet would have to be, and found it - that's how Neptune was discovered.

Even when individual theory saving hypotheses are not individually ad hoc, they can be collectively rendered ad hoc if the defender of the theory is prepared endlessly to cook up new hypotheses to save the theory. Or appeals to mystery, of course, which are also, in effect, ad hoc. This is the strategy I call "But it Fits!" in the book Believing Bullshit.

Now to Glenn's response. He says...

GLENN: 1) I’m not even close to being persuaded that the plausibility of theodicies is anything like the plausibility of explanations for why we should believe in a young universe.

ME: What you’re persuaded of is irrelevant. I have pointed out why your method of dealing with the problem of evil is essentially similar to that employed by Young Earth Creationists to deal with counter-evidence.

GLENN: 2) Theodicies don’t strike me as ad hoc. Things like the free will defence or the soul building defence (etc) are generalisable. E.g. the might be stated something like “For any perfectly good and all powerful being, it would still be conceivable that they allow X provided it has some outcome that is compatible with their good character, such as Y.” Ad hoc explanations are really one-off explanations of a sort that are just made up to explain one very specific situation by appealing to principles that are of no use otherwise. So it’s not ad hoc at all.

ME: That’s not what ad hoc means, Glenn. Ad hoc explanations lead to no new tests. The theodicies are ad hoc, by Popper’s definition (he coined the phrase). Look it up. Or, when the theodicies are not ad hoc, and the further test is failed, they are salvaged by yet another defensive manouevre, just as in the case of YEC, thereby rendering the theory unfalsifiable (or an appeal to mystery, of course). Nutters who believe dogs are spies from the planet Venus, etc. employ the exact same strategy.

Ad hoc hoc defences CAN be generalizable. For example, to defend my theory that the Earth is ruled by alien lizards, I can deal with an apparent counter-evidence by saying: "Ah, but that evidence was of course planted there by the alien lizards to fool us." That's a great general, blanket immunizing strategy. it's not one off.

GLENN: 3) Even if things were different and theodicies were ad hoc, they are intended as explanations for why a person might do or allow something that you didn’t expect them to. If anything is allowed to be ad hoc, surely it’s something about why so-and-so might do something. If you rejected the explanation because it was ad hoc, you’d be effectively stacking the deck against any explanation in terms of a person’s intentions, which would be unfair in this case, to put it mildly. But this is moot, since theodicies aren’t ad hoc in any important sense anyway.

ME: The theodicies are indeed ad hoc in Popper's sense. They lead to no new tests (either that, or further explaining away is done ad nauseum to deal with further explanatory failures, or they're supplemented by appeals to mystery). This is NOT like when someone does something out of character and we say, ah, but they probably had this reason for doing it. Often, we can test our hypothesis. So the suggestion is not ad hoc at all. And the occasional ad hoc explanation for anomolies is in any case acceptable (even Popper thought so). However, when there’s considerable evidence against a theory and it’s all dealt with by ad hoc means (and/or appeals to mystery), then that counter-evidence is NOT neutralized.

You’re strategy is, in short, very much like a wife who, when presented with a husband who very often acts in seemingly cruel and vicious way, beating her and her children, maintains he is nevertheless entirely noble and virtuous. She simply explains all the bad stuff away in a manner that is entirely ad hoc (or, when her excuses and explanations for his behaviour clearly fail, just constructs yet more explanations ad nauseum, and/or appeals to his having mysterious unknown reasons).

You, Glenn, say: "If you rejected the explanation because it was ad hoc, you’d be effectively stacking the deck against any explanation in terms of a person’s intentions". This is just false. You have misunderstood what "ad hoc" actually means, as I and Popper use the term. Explanations in terms of people's intentions usually aren't ad hoc, as it's usually possible to test the explanation. E.g. We believe Tom is kind and non-violent. We discover he has killed someone with a knife. We postulate that he killed in self-defence. That it was a case of self-defence is something that can be investigated and indeed potentially shown to be false. It's not ad hoc. But even if it were, it would acceptable if it's a one off example. What's not acceptable is to rely almost entirely on ad hoc means to save your theory from refutation. That's what you are doing, Glenn.

To return to the beaten wife - the wife is being irrational if she insists there’s no prima facie good evidence that her husband is NOT entirely noble and good. She’s deluded. You seem, to me, are a similar case.

Now of course, the wife might insist she has these other very good reasons for thinking her husband really is noble after all. Perhaps she has. But, as things stand, her husband’s horrific behaviour really is excellent evidence that he’s not entirely noble and good, notwithstanding the wife’s endless supply of untestable excuses and explanations.

That’s right, I am suggesting you’re deluded, Glenn. Not very gracious of me, but it’s what I think. Clearly, when we are both so very confident of the reasonableness of our respective, but mutually exclusive, positions, one of us very probably is pretty deluded. The above considerations suggest it’s you.

PPPS. That this is the fundamental problem with the theodicies (and skeptical theism, actually), a problem that the EGC brings out at an intuitive level, is something I'm writing up as an academic paper.

Postscript 20 Dec. Glenn has responded again. Here's my (slightly edited) reply (quoting him):

Glenn you say: "you've got to insist that even explanations that are compatible with all the facts an are true will be discarded by your method of labelling explanations as ad hoc, basically ensuring that no explanation at all will get through your filter,"

Of course true explanations can quite rightly and justifiably be rejected. Happens all the time. But in any case you haven't shown your explanations are true, at this point (considering just the evidential problem of evil prior to considerations favouring theism). You are just assuming they are, at this point!

"No explanations at all will get through your filter." Not sure what this means. Non ad hoc explanations of counter-evidence are fine. Even the occasional ad hoc explanation is acceptable. The only thing I am ruling out is a theory defended against seemingly very powerful counter-evidence more or less entirely by ad-hoc means (plus mystery-mongering). I'm saying, very sensibly, that that does NOT neutralize the counter-evidence! This must, by now, be blindingly obvious to you.

But the key point, Glenn, is, once explaining away all counter-evidence by more or less entirely ad hoc means (plus mystery mongering) is allowed - and that IS your strategy, as you seem finally to have realized - EVERY NUTTY THEORY BECOMES ENTIRELY IMMUNE TO COUNTER EVIDENCE. Indeed, this is the preferred method of dealing with counter-evidence by nutcases the world over.

I can now quite reasonably believe the world is ruled by evil, shape-shifting alien lizards. A wife can quite reasonably believe the husband who beats her and her children is wholly noble and good. Any counter-evidence can quite reasonably be endlessly explained away by ad hoc means (supplemented, if required, by mystery-mongering). Our absurd beliefs will be just as reasonable as yours. And yours as reasonable as ours.

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