But I still… haven’t found… a solution to the problem of evil.

Slacktivist has excerpts from U2 frontman Bono’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast. Mostly, it’s good stuff, in which he chastises George W. Bush for not doing more to fight poverty around the world. But there’s one section that I thought was very self-defeating, because while Bono wants to make this a religious mission, he runs right into the problem of evil (which I’ve written about before). I have to wonder if Bono is really thinking about what he’s saying here:

I mean, God may well be with us in our mansions on the hill … I hope so. He may well be with us as in all manner of controversial stuff — maybe, maybe not. But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.
God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.

Bono is describing people who live in abject misery, and if we are to assume that God exists, the obvious question to ask is, why does God permit such suffering at all? It seems to me that one of the following statements has to be true:
1. God doesn’t know about the suffering of the poor.
2. God knows about the poor but does not care.
3. God knows about the poor and cares about their suffering, but is powerless to help them.
Now religious people generally try to obscure the issue rather than admit that one of these things is true. But Bono in the above remarks has just ruled out statements 1 and 2, so we are left with the disturbing fact that Bono believe in a god who has less power to help the poor than George W. Bush, or Bono himself. Why even refer to such a being as a god? Seems more like sort of a concerned spirit, or something.
One could argue that God works his will through the charitable actions of humans. This doesn’t reflect well on God’s character: basically, he’s the lazy manager who gets his subordinates to do all the work, and then takes all the credit at the end.
Or one could argue that the charitable impulse itself comes from God. This, in addition to resembling a common and vicious slander against atheists, argues for a very weak god indeed, as (by Bono’s own admission) there is not nearly enough charity in the world.
So what good is it to the poor if God is with them? If man living in a cardboard box could trade the presence of God for a roof over his head, shouldn’t he do it?

69 thoughts on “But I still… haven’t found… a solution to the problem of evil.

  1. Lemming

    I like to play the devil’s advocate (or, in this case, God’s.)
    Consider the following: if we live in a world where we are powerless to hurt one another, or more accurately, unable to not help one another, are we really in the same world? If man is to have choice, share a world and not be perfect, suffering is an inevitability, divine power or no.
    One of the few looks on / explanations of religion that I have found tolerable at all, and in fact rather respect, hinges around the notion of man’s right to choose. If our choices never impact others, can they ever really be judged as right or wrong? This is tricky for me, since my primary ethical metric revolves precisely around a decisions impact on those around you, not yourself.
    I’m just saying that there are self-consistent interpretations of religion where this contradiction doesn’t arise. That being said, Bono comes off slightly the chump, but does actually manage to get to the heart of the matter, even if he bogs it down with flowery religious foofoo.
    It’s really all about mankind’s responsibilty to itself. That being said, I think we’re right fucked.

  2. shellock

    My thoughs on the god of rock stars and our president can be summed up by the song “Jesus he knows me”
    You won’t find me practising what I’m preaching
    Won’t find me making no sacrifice
    But I get you a pocketful of miracles
    If you promise to be good, try to be nice
    God will take good care of you
    Just do as I say, don’t do as I do

  3. Mason

    “Jesus He Knows Me” is an excellent song!
    Also, I take issue with Bono’s comment “But the one thing we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor.”
    Um, no. Why must people include the ‘we can all agree on [blah] statement’? It seems to me that such statements are almost never accurate, and that still applies even with a qualifier such as ‘everybody who believes in God can all agree on…’. No we can’t all agree on it!
    Anyway, the flowery stuff was already referenced by Lemming, but wouldn’t people make more of an impact if they made their points without also alienating people with statements like this? Maybe I’m overly sensitive (ok, maybe not ‘maybe’), but I get immediately turned off by statements like this and would be less likely to even get to the intended message before already having given up reading/listening to the person as a result of this stuff.

  4. JSpur

    In my current work in progress I have a Homicide cop who suffers from type 1 diabetes talking to the police chief, who is a Sunday School teacher, about why it is that a merciful and benevolent and all-powerful God would choose to give him a fundamentally for shit body. Happy to post the dialogue if you or your readers have any interest.
    At the end the Chief says, “God didn’t give you your diabetes, Mike.”
    And Mike says, “I know. That’s because there is no God. My diabetes? That’s just the cosmos, giving me The Finger.”

  5. Arcane Gazebo

    Lemming: I’ve never quite found the free-will solution plausible; I develop this point more in the older post I linked. The problem is that we have a world which is structured to favor the free will of the stronger and richer. In the context of the present post, consider the people in New Orleans who were unable to evacuate due to crushing poverty. The vast majority wanted to evacuate, but due to their social circumstances were denied the opportunity to exercise their free will. So while I might be convinced that God cares about free will, I don’t see that he cares about justice and equality in how this free will is distributed across economic lines.

  6. shellock

    3 possiblities:
    1) God is just on vacation and the universe has gone to hell in his absence.
    2) God has a sick and twisted sence of humor and we jsut don’t get when he is jokeing
    3) God is a much higher/bigger life form and to him were ants the might note even notice us as he steps on us (B5 had a theory like this)

  7. Chris L-S

    There is another possibility – that there are other actors in the equation, such as spiritual beings who are well and truly evil, and that they are constantly fighting God.
    Here is how I view this existence: there is a spiritual world that we are a part of, but for the most part unaware of while we live in the physical world. If it makes it easier for the scientist in you to grasp, think of this world as another dimension (I heard somewhere that for string theory to be valid there needs to be something like 11 dimensions). There are beings in this world that all sprang from the same source and are all ultimately still connected to that source, which is God. However, these beings are essentially like children at the beginning of all things, knowing very little and trying to figure themselves out.
    Much like teenagers trying to gain independence from their parents, they enter the physical realm to learn what they can from existence away from the all-pervasive presence of God. Each soul carries away from its life on Earth its own lessons about life. They then proceed to process this information as well as they can in the more reflective world of the spirit until they feel that they are ready to go back in, where they repeat the process.
    Perhaps some of these spirits do not wish to return to the physical realm and harbor bitter feelings about their time there. Or perhaps there are spirits who simply do not wish to become physical at all. These spirits try to influence people and events either for good or for ill through people’s desires, emotions, and thoughts. Think about it, have you ever had thoughts pop into your head that you can only scratch your head and think “Why on Earth would I think about that?” Perhaps that is an example of this, or through desires you get that you can’t really explain.
    Anyway, this gets back to the idea of free will. We have the choice about whether or not to follow these impulses and desires, as well as to generally work good or evil upon the world. Our learning as spiritual beings would be stunted and useless if God prevented evil and suffering. Perhaps God doesn’t even know if He is basically good or evil, and is running existence as a way to figure it out. I’ve also heard that in may ways suffering is the best teacher of all; I know I took most of my good impulses and values out of my miserable childhood (mostly in the context of “I will never do what I experienced to other people”).
    Anyway, to summarize that drivel, this could all just mean that we are all little bits of the universe trying to figure itself out, and if the Universe interfered, the experiment would be inherently flawed.

  8. Mason

    “Ten billion ants in this world, and I’m having trouble with just one.” (The Aardvark from “The Ant and the Aardvark” cartoon)
    A learning experience is one of those things that says, ‘You know that thing you just did? Don’t do that.'” (Douglas Adams, interview in The Daily Nexus, 4/5/00)

  9. Arcane Gazebo

    Shellock: I can just see it: I die in a freak liquid helium accident and, to my surprise, find myself facing God for judgement. I figure this is my chance to get some answers, and ask, “So what was with all the suffering in the world?”
    God says, “It was for your entertainment! A world without suffering would be boring, after all. I like to think of it as a variety act with audience participation.”
    I’m a bit skeptical. “That’s a hell of an act,” I reply. “What do you call it?”
    God snaps his fingers and says, “The Aristocrats!”

  10. Lemming

    I’ve been working on a rather long post, but I’ve gotta put it off until I’m done with work. I’m entirely too riled up (in a good way, mostly) by this topic, and I need to actually focus on work for another hour or two.
    Oh, and Mason–it’s funny that you mention aardvarks. Chris, your post reminds me very strongly of some of the elements presented in Dave Sim’s final volume of Cerebus. He used two names, “God” and “Yweh,” the latter of which was a really collection of entities very much like what you’ve described.
    But enough of that for the moment, I’m getting errors showing up that are on the order of 1e-4. That’s bad.

  11. Josh

    Lemming: Yweh probably comes from Judaism, since YHWH is God’s name in Hebrew (“I am”), transliterated to Yahweh. Which doesn’t surprise me that Dave Sim decided to use that term, considering that he borrows from, say, everything else to make his stories. I never read past Jaka’s Story, myself, but I enjoyed the series up until that point.
    As for the God issue, my question has stopped being “What kind of a being is God?” since, by definition, I can’t answer that question, and if I did, it would be pretty much picking and choosing out of a multitude of perspectives on the matter. I think it would be selfish to choose one religion to absolutely believe in, because that religion would have naturally values that ultimately are more agreeable to my own than all the others. So saying that my own values are translated into a religion is basically making my own point of view holier-than-thou and assuming that I have divine backing for all my arguments. You’ll notice most religious figures aren’t big on pointing out how wrong they are, just how wrong other people are: that’s because they have a tendency to focus on the sins that they believe they are already battling heroically against, or, even more egomaniacally, have overcome.
    Sin itself is an issue for me, by the way, but that would require many more paragraphs.
    Regardless of all that, my question has moved from “what kind of being is God?” to, “no matter what kind of being God is, is He deserving of my worship?” The answer is simply: no. I came by this answer over a number of years, but I’ll try to lay out the basic points that led me to my conclusion.
    First, many incarnations of God I hear in the public forum are automatically not worthy of my worship. An all-powerful being that could and would demand my worship or send me to Hell is, in fact, worthy of my fear, but is ultimately a piece of shit bastard who I would never worship. The fact that some of my friends and family are atheist and would eventually burn in Hell was reason enough for me to turn my back on any God that would send them there.
    That’s hardly the extent of perspectives on God, however, and there are deities in peoples’ minds that do not punish the so-called “wicked” in an afterlife which basically amounts to a world of “I told you so.”
    So, where did I go from there? The conclusion I eventually came to is that as long as there is so much uncertainty about God’s existence and preferences, there’s absolutely no reason for me to worship Him. He obviously doesn’t care, and if He does, then He should make steps to make sure we’re all clear on what He wants. Supposing Jesus was actually the Messiah, I hardly see how one man sent to a small part of the Earth makes a difference. As I’ve said before, Christianity did not reach the Japanese until just before the Tokugawa Shogunate, which means they spent 800 years on an island never even having heard of this guy Jesus. And when faith in Jesus is a necessary component for salvation, don’t you think that’s a little unfair on the Japanese in those 800 years?
    So, if He does care that we devote all our time to worshipping him and having faith in Jesus, then He’s done a really shitty, un-God-worthy job of showing it. So far he has shown tacit approval on killing people and burning down embassies for the sake of a “blasphemous” cartoon, for example. If He works in mysterious ways and miracles happen every day, they’re happening to the wrong people. Oddly enough they all seem to be upper-middle-class white people.
    On the other hand, if He doesn’t care about our devotion, then what’s the point in worshipping Him? If we have immortal souls, then we have all the time in the world to attain perfect understanding of everything and grow and be a part of God. But we only have a century if we’re lucky on this Earth to enjoy the so called “sins” of the flesh. Passion for life is by and large looked down upon by a lot of religions, which is why when you hear the term “sanctity of life”, it’s often coming from the mouth of someone who believes in the exact opposite. Life for many of the devout isn’t sacred, it’s suffering and penitence and resistence to the temptations of the only shot we’re going to have in this incarnation.
    As for reincarnation, there’s by basic definition no such idea. The idea that you can be born again but not have any memory of a past life means that those past lives effectively weren’t you. You are a totally different being as a human then you were as a galapagos turtle, and none of the experiences and lessons and beautiful moments of THAT life carried over to this one, so no matter how old your soul is would be an irrelevant number. The only certainty left is life, and there’s not much of it, and it could end at any moment.
    So why isn’t enjoying life to the fullest the best form of worship? I guarantee that if that was the frame of mind of the world, there’d be a lot less martyrdom and crusades out there.

  12. Justin

    “Anyway, to summarize that drivel, this could all just mean that we are all little bits of the universe trying to figure itself out, and if the Universe interfered, the experiment would be inherently flawed.”
    A-ha, Chris is a Minbari in human form! Got a robe with a big green gem on it hiding in your closet, eh? 😀

  13. Mason

    Justin: I was actually thinking of the slight rephrasing into quantum mechanical terms when I saw that statement.
    Aardvark: The voice of that quote was said by someone attempting to sound like Jackie Mason. The Ant and the Aardvark was a poorly animated but extremely hilarous cartoon series that was shown in conjunction with the Pink Panther cartoons. “I am not an anteater! I am an aardvark!” Once I get my DVD package from the post office (they don’t want to deliver it because they’re afraid somebody will steal my pink panther cartoons if I am not home to pick it up, no matter that I signed their form), I’ll have own a few more of those cartoons that I can show you.

  14. Zifnab

    JSpur: I’d love to see that dialogue, but that’s probably because i’ve liked reading your books and it’d be getting a sneak peek. :)
    I have no reasoned remarks to make on the actual issues being discussed here, other than they are much harder problems than my CS138 algorithms problems, which include such zingers as:
    Consider a Monte Carlo algorithm A for a problem \Pi whose expected running time is at most T(n) on any instance of size n and produces a correct solution with probability y(n). Suppose further that given a solution to \Pi, we can verify its correctness in time t(n). Show how to obtain a Las Vegas algorithm that always gives a correct answer to \Pi and runs in expected time at most (T(n)+t(n))/y(n).
    This is a trivial construction. I wish more of the problems from this class were that easy, or more of life’s hard problem’s (like presence of God, etc) had trivial constructions.

  15. Lemming

    zomgdisclaimer: I think everyone knows I hold a great deal of respect for the AG. I think I roughly share his religious beliefs (or rather, lack thereof), but happen to disagree on some more philosophical matters. Therefore, I hope the, ur, particular language I use will be interpreted to represent the intensity I feel for my opinions, rather than being disparaging against AG.
    That being said, everything he’s posted is rubbish. (Well, not really, but I was dying to say that.)
    Here’s what I started to write: “Your shooting-down of the ‘Free Will Defense’ is laughable–I expect better from you.” Thinking it over a bit more, I’d rather approach it a bit more carefully. Perhaps you’re using a different definition of free will than I am?
    To quote my bedsheets, “Life is full of important choices.” More accurately, a series of choices. You don’t get to pick the questions, only the answers. Sure, the decisions you make influence what you will face in the future quite heavily, but you don’t have the ability or even the right to dictate precisely what will happen to you in the future. You do not get to choose what happens to you. You may only ever choose how you react, but that choice is what is vitally important.
    Let’s take an absurd and extreme example. For no apparent reason, one night several people kidnap you, chain you up and lock you in a dark room for the rest of your life. This has nothing to do with your own free will. You can choose whether or not to stew in your own anger for the rest of your life. This has everything to do with your own free will.
    Free will is not state. Free will is transition. Judgement (in either a biblical sense or a judicial sense, idealized by my own philosophy of course) has nothing to do with state, and everything to do with free will. Guilt is a function of either choosing to do wrong or failing to choose to do right. Many obvious crimes fall under the former category. A chief example of the latter would be any form of criminal negligence. Also, choices are meaningless outside of the context in which they are made. Being coerced into killing is not murder. Allowing yourself to be coerced into killing might be manslaughter, however, depending on the circumstances.
    It might seem that the value of free will is your ability to control the world around you. This absolutely nothing the fuck to do with why free will is important. Free will means you can define your self. You have absolute power over self, and that is everything. Anything else is just an artifact of that. You are defined by the choices you make and so you have the power to define who you are.
    A common impression I get from various Christian faiths is that our life in this world is not the point–we’re only here so that judgement can be served for the hereafter or somesuch poppycock. This is perfectly consistent, and again requires free will and the ability to hurt one another. If someone, as AG says in his much earlier post, chooses to impose on themselves a “shall not kill” rule, they are a better person for it, assuming they follow said path. If, on the other hand, some outside force made it impossible to commit such a crime, the distinction becomes meaningless. They would never be guilty, but they would never really be innocent either. If we cannot be bad to one another, we can’t be good to one another in a meaningful way either. Suppose we take away the ability to wrong one another–we are left with doing good to one another or not. Suddenly “not good” takes the place of “bad”, and while there is certainly less suffering, the morality of the system hasn’t changed.
    The mark of a truly good person is being able to find and make the right choice out of unpleasant alternatives and difficult circumstances. If no chance for failure exists, these virtues become meaningless. Trust me–I know about this from personal experience. I’ve faced some painful choices and dealt with some incredibly difficult circumstances. I’m afraid to say I chose really fucking poorly.
    Not what you were expecting?
    I’ve made some bad mistakes, bad decisions in bad circumstances. In at least one case, someone completely uninvolved got hurt. In another, an instigator got hurt way more than they deserved. That shit hurts–there are few things in my life I regret, but things like this I regret big time.
    I suspect, perhaps vainly, in the long-tail I’m the one that suffers the most as a consequence of those choices. I hope that’s the case, at least. Given that, however, I can carry these memories with me and have the hope to some day become a better person. Had those choices been impossible for me to make, others would never have been hurt, but I would exist as a person to a lesser extent. Maybe I come across a selfish sadist for preferring a world where I can hurt others. If I had to, I would be willing to sacrifice much personal happiness to live in a world where I had to choose not to
    The notion of free will is inextricable from the notion of a God that cares about moral behavior. This is what gets me about your argument, by the way. You seem to casually shoot this down in a way that completely falls short.
    Mind you, as far as shooting down 98% or so of practicing religion out there, I’m completely with you. If you’re going to isolate the notion of a “Moral God”, however, you’re going to fucking fail. With logic, philosophy, or even just a smidgen of compassion you can trivially refute most religion out there, not that any of said believers would care. You cannot fucking refute God. I’m not trying to defend some deity I don’t even believe exists, I’m just saying you weaken your stance by trying to logically refute something that by it’s own definition can never be disproven.
    I can hardly believe I just said that. I stand by it though. Computability/provability and truth are two different things. If something is provably unprovable, TAKING EITHER SIDE REDUCES TO A MATTER OF FAITH. So, I suppose, I have faith in no god, or more precisely, I have faith in No God.
    Which is kind of funny, since I usually describe myself as agnostic. In particular, decidedly agnostic.
    I have met a precious few people in my life who were devoutly religious (not in practising worship, but rather in the extent of their faith) whose beliefs I found I could respect. It has been demonstrated to me that there are interpretations of even the Christian faith (gasp!) that are not so disgusting. Who woulda thought? To name a particular example, after prying quite vigorously at Mike^2’s brain with a crowbar, I was rewarded with a point of view that made far more sense than I was expecting.
    Josh made a valuable distinction (actually said a lot of good stuff, I’ll get to that)–the distinction of worship. In my mind, worship is right out, but what about respect? I have seen some interpretations of a religious faith that weren’t a huge stretch, would remain self consistent with my own personal values, and would allow me to respect a higher power, though still certainly not worship. For all intents and purposes I would be the same person with a slightly different label on my beliefs.
    The only problem with that is I know, on an emotional level (see, faith), that there is no God. Just like P != NP. I can live with the fact that it can’t be proven. I’m especially comfortable with it ever since I realized, years ago, that the values I hold dear remain fixed with respect to the existence of a higher power. I’ve got what I need, I know what I value–I am an atheist, but I don’t need it anymore, so I don’t feel the need to identify myself as such. When I say I’m agnostic, it’s not that I don’t know. It’s that it doesn’t matter.
    Josh, I really appreciated your post. I don’t agree with you outright, but you said a lot of things I agree with. And yeah, Yweh does come from Judaism. I can loan you the volume if you like, but it really makes more sense in context. Unfortunately, as Sim’s talent for writing increases, his sanity follows with the inverse. I see most of what you said an issue more with popular religion rather than the existence of God–though you did cleverly restate the question into the far more relevant, “is He deserving of my worship?”
    Consider: does God even have will? I’m throwing this out as a little aside really, just a musing I had a while back. Assume that God exists, but doesn’t have will, per se. What is he/she, then? Consider an Turing machine with one “small” modification. An infinite tape, filled in advance with whatever data we like. Given this, we now have a machine to compute the uncomputable–any finitely stated question with a finite answer can be solved in finite time. Actually, we could even manage a few infinite answers if we were careful, but never mind that. All truth, to all existence, past present and future. What would you call something like that? Does the universe define the truth of the universe, or vice versa? Given our earlier assumption that “God does not have will,” we suddenly have a concise and, in my opinion, enlightening word for our little hypothetical Turing machine. God.
    I’d like to phrase something I said in a slightly different light. Consider: MMO*Gs. Some are PvE, some are PvP, and many implement some combination of the two. Any game where the ability of one person to be a dick to another is limited, so is the ability to interact in a meaningful and open way. In fact, the games I’ve enjoyed most in this regard are those who, rather than limit my choices, provide me consequences for them. What a novel concept!
    Speaking of consequences, I’m jumping tracks again. I’ve had bits and pieces running through my brain all day, and I’m making a mess trying to get them all down. We’re getting even deeper into fluffy Tim-philosophy here, just to warn you.
    You know the Golden Rule? “Do unto others” and all that? It’s fucking broken.
    It’s built around the old notion of “don’t hurt other people so they don’t hurt me.” I can’t help but think the threat of personal suffering is the best way to build a society. True enough, pain does teach best, a possibility Chris brought up earlier. (An aside question: should children be spanked? I’m not completely convinced, but I’m pretty sure the answer is yes, to a small extent, and I hope I have the courage for it someday) It just doesn’t seem a very… virtuous (forgive my use of the word) basis on which to get along with your fellow man (it’s a gender-neutral use of the word, damn it!).
    You see, pain is the most primal, base notion we have of what is “wrong”. We’ve got this whole intelligence on consciousness layer built on top, but the machine code is still “ouch” (compiled into byte code, naturally). There’s a jump from this, however, that works a bit better than the old Golden Rule. Something that, in my not so humble opinion, gives us at least some hope to grow as a people.
    Maybe it’s just a learned thing, an internalization of the threat of the pain of others acting to cause pain for yourself. It is, however, when we begin to feel the pain of others on the same primal level as our own. That’s really something–when the feelings of others are shared, and we can begin to judge the impact we have on those around us by the same fundamental feeling that tells us it sucks to stub our toe. Brilliant!
    If you don’t mind me wandering just a bit further, this is also what love is, to me. When that sharing of these true basis vectors of emotions runs so deep that the line between your own sorrows and joys is blurred almost inextricably with those of another.
    Then again, maybe that’s why I’m such an emotional catastrophe.
    (And wow, after realizing how much I’ve written, to hell with proofreading.)

  16. Lemming

    Clarification to the Turing machine bit: I was talking about an infinte (aleph-null) additional tape, plenty of space to enumerate “all truth that can be stated finitely, and some that can be stated only infinitely, for your viewing pleasure.”

  17. Arcane Gazebo

    Oh man, I wish I’d had more time today to respond to all these posts. My response to Lemming’s post alone could go to book-length, a book which I would of course entitle Well That About Wraps It Up For God. Consequently I don’t have time to post much of it tonight, at least if I want to sleep, but rest assured that I’m not conceding the main point. For now let me address a few definitional issues, and I’ll address the more substantive stuff later (tomorrow evening maybe, since tomorrow during the day doesn’t look so good as far as free time).
    First of all, let me explicate what I’m trying to prove by bringing up the problem of evil. I’m not trying to disprove all possible variants on a benevolent god; instead I’m going after a specific concept of God that’s common in mainstream Christianity. I think it can be reduced to five claims:
    1. God exists.
    2. God is omniscient.
    3. God is omipotent.
    4. God is benevolent.
    5. God created the universe.
    A priori claim 4 is the weak one for Christianity, because it is contradicted by… most of the Bible. But that’s a different game. The problem of evil is that the above five claims produce a pretty strong set of constraints on the kinds of universes that can exist, and therefore are inconsistent with the actual universe, which contains a rather obscene amount of gratuitous suffering. So one of the above five items has to be false. You mentioned “self-consistent” a couple of times but in fact this is a test of external consistency, sort of an observational test which may be why, as an experimentalist, it appeals to me.
    So in my forthcoming post I’ll need to explain why, contra Lemming, there is gratuitous suffering and not just justified suffering.
    On atheism vs. agnosticism: Certainly I can’t claim to have ruled out all conceivable gods. However, insofar as any religion anyone has seriously proposed to me has not even been remotely plausible, I feel comfortable calling myself an atheist anyway.
    I was going to comment on the definition of free will, but I think I can save my original argument against the Free Will Defense by using symmetry arguments on certain implied properties, without ever defining it explicitly. More on that later, unless it turns out not to work.

  18. Mason

    Re: ‘Well That About Wraps It Up For God':
    You might wish to borrow a book title or two that appeared in Hitchhiker’s Guide
    Hmmm… normally, I think I’d more actively discuss some of this stuff, but I’m a bit distracted at the moment. (I’d need to read several of the posts more carefully than I have been, and my brain is pretty fried these days.)
    I’ll sit this one out and watch the fireworks or something. As has been mentioned, it’s a hard problem. :)

  19. shellock

    Arcane Gazebo: So do yuo have a metric average length of post per thread? This one seem to get rather lengthy responces.

  20. JSpur

    and because of the length of the responses here’s how I’m gonna handle Zifnab’s request (and thanks very much for the compliment)- I’m gonna excerpt and email the chapter to Arcane Gazebo and ask him to post it somewhere and create a link to it so that those who are interested can read the dialogue (which replays several of the themes discussed here).

  21. JSpur

    I should by way add that I think the lesson of September 11 was this- You want us to believe in You? Then once and for all- come out of hiding and deal with all these motherfuckers who are going around killing innocent folks in Your name.
    Until then? You don’t exist for me.
    So that puts me squarely in Josh’s camp.

  22. Arcane Gazebo

    Shellock: I thought about ranking threads by word count (or character count) in which case I think this one is the clear winner.
    Something that should have been in my earlier comment about definitions: One more thing I need to show, if I want to connect back to my Bono-bashing, is that not only is there gratuitous suffering but that global poverty is an example of this. It’s not the most perfect example so I’ll be dropping back to some clearer cases at first. Also, another alternative to gratuitous suffering (besides justified suffering) is unavoidable suffering, which I should have mentioned (and which doesn’t cause a problem of evil, if it’s truly unavoidable).

  23. Lemming

    Aha! Well said. If you’ll allow to clarify slightly your summary of basic assumptions, largely for my own sake, I’ll happily concede my point.
    3. God is omnipotent, and actively interacts with His/Her/Its/Their creation.
    Given that they existence of a prophet requires this, it is fair to add it to your list of assumptions, I hope?
    If so, I agree that the collective assumptions cannot be self-consistent.
    Can a benevolent God be truly omnipotent but, by choice, not interfere with the universe once it has been set in motion? I think so.
    You make the distinction between several types of suffering–gratuitous, justified. I believe rather strongly that there is no metric by which you can truly divide the two cleanly. Any line you draw will have fuzzy grey areas, try as you might. You cannot maintain, in truth, free will unless you concede the possibility of some truly fucked up shit happening.
    I don’t have to tell you guys about how this applies to politics–freedom versus security. It’s a trade off we’re all familiar with, I hope, and it’s very similar. In fact, as far as political platforms go, there are only two (essentially) that leave no confusion as to where the line is drawn, and the both suck outright. (Totalitarian and anarchy, for those following from home.) We get to play a balancing act trying to find a nice, comfortable compromise in the middle. If you tell me that you don’t believe in compromising your freedom at all, and at the same time you aren’t an anarchist, you’re full of shit.
    I suppose one of the major tenants of beliefs that I can stand (though again, don’t hold myself) is that this world is ours, and the next one is God’s. We are solely responsible for what we make of this one, and while God might have power over it, he leaves it to us. The next, well that’s His/Her/Its/Their business. While you make a point that is incredibly strong on an emotional level, JSpur, I don’t see it being God’s business to take care of our problems in this world, whether or not he exists. Then again, matters of such pitch are well beyond what I have any right to talk about, so I’ll shush and move on.
    I should mention that “Hell” is one of the concepts that I find utterly laughable. If such a thing exists, it’s only by the whim of a saddistic sonuvabitch. I honestly cannot think of anything one could do in a finite lifetime that would warrant infinite suffering.
    AG, I used to agree with your line of argument completely. In my own case, however, I followed that logical path, but not motivated by logic per se. I was driven more by anger I felt toward something that doesn’t even exist. In the long term, anger didn’t seem like the best thing to base one’s life philosophy around.
    When it comes down to it, there are only a handful of things I really know. There are some base, emotional notions of right and wrong I feel on such a fundamental level that I’m willing to accept them as Truth, at least as far as using them to make my own decisions. Everything past that is just my (possibly flawed) application of logic and reason. Those base feelings are even arbitrary, to some extent, an emotional result of nature and years of nurture, but hell, you’ve got to take something and call it valuable. If you want to try to think of things from first principles, that is.
    By the way, one other comment I had for you, JSpur. I really need to read the excerpt now that AG has posted it (he hadn’t when I started writing this) so I’ll have the necessary context, but the bit of dialogue you quoted caused a minor conundrum in my brain.
    I went on a silly little tangent before about God and Turing machines. The point I never really made is that God, minus a sense of “will” as we know it, is just the truth of the universe, the rules by which it operates. Some might say “physics.” Saying “God does not exist” is, to me, the same as saying, “The universe does not have will.” Saying, “The universe giving me the finger,” is, in fact, saying the universe has will. That’s what I get, however, for subjecting someone else’s clever writing to the chaotic meat grinder I store between my ears.
    Hrm, for now, back to work. I’ve got some performance tables to generate, and my baby (256 Xeons) needs some TLC.

  24. Arcane Gazebo

    [This was largely written before Lemming’s latest comment, as a response to his prior comment, so I’m going to just post it and reply to the newer one later… after the seminar that’s about to start.]
    Ok, let me first respond to Lemming’s comments on free will, because I like my original argument on this subject and want to save it. Lemming’s argument takes a broader scope than this eventually, and I’ll address those issues as well, but one thing that is definitely true is that the worst examples of suffering in this world have little or nothing to do with preserving free will.
    As I alluded before I don’t think we need a precise definition of free will to discuss this; I don’t believe that free will exists on either a microscopic or macroscopic level, so defining this counterfactual quantity would be difficult for me anyway. Fortunately, certain properties are implied by the way people talk about it, and I can rely on these to make my argument without formulating a strict definition.
    First of all, we can agree that whether free will is a coherent concept or not is not contingent on whether God exists. Plenty of atheists believe in free will, and likewise some Christians don’t. (I have Calvinism in mind here, don’t know if this is widespread in the modern era.) So a minimal definition of free will can’t be contingent on God.
    Now the argument I’ve previously called the Free Will Defense goes like this: consider a situation in which two people, A and B, are trying to kill each other, and God may choose to intervene, perhaps by miraculously binding one or both parties to prevent any killing. (I cast Hold Person!) One can imagine a few different outcomes:
    1. No intervention; A kills B or B kills A, or both.
    2. God intervenes neutrally, binding both A and B.
    3. God intervenes on behalf of A, binding B; A kills B.
    4. God intervenes on behalf of B, binding A; B kills A.
    In at least some of these situations, option 2 will produce the least suffering, so why would a benevolent God never do this? And the free will defense says that option 2 restricts the free will of A and B, and is therefore unacceptable. Options 3 and 4 presumably also restrict the free will of one of the parties, and are therefore also unacceptable, with the additional problem that a just god would need a reason to favor one party over the other.
    Now consider a less symmetric situation: A and B are again trying to kill each other, but B is the aggressor and A is acting in self-defense. The possibilities above become:
    1. No intervention; A kills B or B kills A, or both.
    2. God intervenes neutrally, binding both A and B.
    3. God intervenes on behalf of A, binding B; A now has the choice of killing B or calling the police.
    4. God intervenes on behalf of B, binding A; B kills A.
    Now for a god who’s interested in moral choice, option 3 is clearly the best option, as it gives A an interesting choice, a chance to prove his moral character and grow as a person or whatever. Whereas option 4 is pretty horrible and certainly would never be chosen by a benevolent god. But once again we only see option 1, and again the free will defense states that this is because the infringements on free will in options 2, 3, and 4 are unacceptable.
    Finally, consider a real-world case: B is the BTK killer, and A is one of his victims. Now option 1 is the real world outcome, and the others are interventionist alternatives:
    1. No intervention; B binds A, then tortures and kills her.
    2. God intervenes neutrally, binding both A and B.
    3. God intervenes on behalf of A, binding B; A now has the choice of killing B or calling the police.
    4. God intervenes on behalf of B, binding A; B tortures and kills A.
    So now outcome 4 is horrible indeed; God becomes an accomplice of the BTK killer and no sane person would consider such a god benevolent. But by not intervening, the substantive outcome in 1 is the same! And of course my argument is: if God binding A would restrict A’s free will, B binding A must also restrict her free will. And this is because, as we noted above, the definition of free will cannot be contingent on God, and so it can’t matter whether the agent doing the binding is God or the killer; either way A’s free will is infringed.
    Lemming’s dodge here is clever but far too strong: it obliterates the Free Will Defense entirely. Lemming says, “You do not get to choose what happens to you.” So A binding B doesn’t infringe B’s free will, because situational factors affecting B are separate from B’s free will. But again, free will doesn’t depend on God, so we should be able to permute A, B, and God in various ways. So in outcome 3, clearly the best outcome from a minimized-suffering standpoint, B is bound by God–and by Lemming’s argument, B’s free will is not infringed! Too bad, B, you got bound by divine intervention–you don’t get to choose what happens to you. Under Lemming’s definition of free will, God can intervene away without any problem, and there’s no longer any Free Will Defense.
    Lemming also raises the notion of a god who’s interested in the moral choices that humans make, and in judging them for these choices in the afterlife. I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically wrong with this, except that there are benevolent and malevolent ways to set up that sort of universe, and we are clearly not in one of the better ones. What kind of god drops us onto an earth with BTK killers running around, just to see if we have the moral fortitude not to bind, torture, and kill people? In so far as the judging god accounts for the presence of evil, it rules out the possibility of a benevolent god given the current circumstances. Lemming says as much here:
    Suppose we take away the ability to wrong one another–we are left with doing good to one another or not. Suddenly “not good” takes the place of “bad”, and while there is certainly less suffering, the morality of the system hasn’t changed.
    This is a point in my favor. So there’s less suffering, and still morality? Why don’t we live in that universe? Why wouldn’t a benevolent god put us in that situation instead of this one? This is just the point I was making in the old problem of evil post.
    Lemming refers to his own personal experiences with making difficult choices, the personal growth that results from experiencing and causing suffering. Look, I’m happy to grant this sort of thing as justifiable or unavoidable suffering. When I want to know why a benevolent god allows suffering, this isn’t really what I’m talking about. As JSpur notes with his mention of 9/11, I’m talking about the really bad stuff. This isn’t the Problem of Really Nice Guys Who Occasionally Make Bad Choices, it’s the Problem of Evil. Why does God allow guys like Hitler and Osama bin Laden and Dennis Rader to go around committing horrible atrocities?
    Look, the BTK killer abducted, raped, tortured, and murdered ten people, and only stopped because apparently he got bored. Where the fuck was the personal growth in this? What exactly was the marginal gain in free will due to the horrible death of that tenth victim, so that there was just no way God couldn’t have had Rader get hit by a bus after his ninth murder, or maybe have police find incriminating evidence during a routine traffic stop? Are you willing to tell the BTK victims that they had to die in agony so that we could all enjoy the free will and moral choice to not be BTK killers ourselves? I’m not. I reject that this suffering is justified or unavoidable. It is gratuitous. It is evidence that if a benevolent god exists, he has no power.
    Likewise, Lemming, your game analogy is just obscene. Are you going to tell a Holocaust victim that life is more fun when we have the capacity to commit genocide?
    A point a couple people have raised is that humans learn very well from painful situations. Of course this is moderate pain, not BTK-level pain. And people also learn really well from positive incentives. But all this is a result of evolution. One corollary of “God created the universe” is that God makes the rules. Suffering doesn’t have to be the best route to learning, God could have done some Intelligent Design so that the best route to learning is having information beamed directly into our heads from God.
    Finally, to address the aside about whether God has will: under the assumptions that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent, he does not, since the omnibenevolence specifies that he must perform the most benevolent action possible.

  25. JSpur

    Lemming: Being neither mathematician, nor philosopher, nor physicist, but instead only a tragically underread part-time crime novelist with literary pretentions, what I had Mike saying was not the equivalent of “the Universe has will,” but rather a bit of a metaphor in this sense: The Finger was the DNA lottery that Mike lost and the consequences of which he got stuck with for the rest of his life through no fault of his own and he chooses to express it that way because he’s PISSED OFF about the unfairness of it.
    AG: You captured what I was saying about That Morning, probably too emotionally, and I was applying that statement to the Christian god who supposedly has the five attributes you mentioned. That is not to say there isn’t some other god with different attributes that is out there somewhere but worshipping this deity or for that matter even believing in it (how the hell can it possible be a “him” in any event?) seems like a waste of time to me, which is where I find my position not distinguishable from Josh’s.
    To wit, God-worship is for suckers.

  26. Lemming

    JSpur: Gotcha. I fell into ye olde trap–Dijkstra, a prominent computer scientist, warned about it. When we anthropomorphise things that aren’t really human, we tend to read too much into it and subconciously make additional incorrect assumptions about the system we have anthropomorphized. And, well, based on the context I read it in, I read way too much into it. :)
    Jokingly, I want to invoke Godwin’s Law. Seriously, though, I’m not too comfortable trying to hold my ethics up against horrors I can’t even begin to imagine. Maybe this means they fall short, but I don’t presume to think that what I’ve learned from personal experience can be held up high in authority over some of the most terrible things to happen to mankind as a whole.
    That being said, I’m going to try anyway, since an example you provided seems too juicy a piece of bait for exactly what I see wrong with your line of reasoning. Feel free to shoot me down for misinterpreting/taking things out of context. At the very least, this will serve to illuminate my own train of thought. “. . . so that there was just no way God couldn’t have had Rader get hit by a bus after his ninth murder. . .” After his ninth? After his fucking ninth? N minus one, bitch. And again. And again and again and again.
    Here’s the problem, though. I don’t see where it stops. I’ve thought about this sort of thing again and again, and it doesn’t ever stop. There’s no hard line, there’s no place where N-1 murders goes from being “genocide” to “a terrible tragedy” to “just a tragedy.” (I knowingly step WAY over my bounds with that sentence, but I don’t know how to communicate this otherwise. Forgive me, seriously.)
    I grant you this–I am, in many ways, completely broken on the inside. There are basic sensibilities others have that are just broken for me. I feel pain when I know I’ve caused pain in others, and I hope in vain that that’s enough. I could, however, be missing something. I can’t look at this spectrum of possibilities and tell you the point at which it all becomes okay. Every time you move some distance along this line “to the left” (eh, arbitrary direction, say “less bad”), it hurts less. Move a little more, it hurts a little less.
    If you can teach me where this magical happy line is, I’d be forever in your debt. If it does exist though, I doubt I could ever see it.
    Sorry about my example wrt games, I fear I may have unintentionally implied more meaning into it than I intended. I meant to demonstrate an example of a context where a very similar concept does get raised, specifically from the perspective of the creator. I would not, in fact, have the nerve to say, “life is more fun when we have the capacity to commit genocide.” I would be inclined to replace the word “fun” with “meaningful”, but given the limitations of my personal experiences I don’t have the right to tell you that’s how it is. . . though I guess, in a way, I already did. I apologize. That’s what I believe, though (though though!), and it scares me.
    You’ve shaken me a fair bit, I’ll give you that. I’m not comdemning you for it either–I appreciate being forced to think. As I said, I could be wrong. I have been before, and I’m sure I will be again.
    Allow me to summarize my point in a way that may make it seem less contradictory to what you’ve said: to me, it is impossible to have a universe in which exists both a self-consistent, moral and omnipotent intervention exists in conjunction with any suffering whatsoever. I fall short in understanding how a supposed omnipotent power could have, without simply being arbitrary, any options besides no intervention and total intervention.
    Damnit, I’m going to be late for dance class. I’ll be back later, so long as AG doesn’t tear this new rectum of mine any deeper.

  27. JSpur

    Lemming- We novelists who trade in metaphor are pretty much expecting to be misread. This in contrast to say Dan Brown who is only slightly harder to misread than he is to read in the first place.
    Hope you weren’t too late for dance class. The good news is I write a helluva lot better than I’m ever gonna dance.

  28. Josh

    I haven’t caught up thoroughly on the reading of the comments (I’ve just been skimming when I need to go in-depth), but I did have some thoughts today to expand upon.
    Generally, the reason I came to my aforementioned conclusion is most of all because spirituality simply didn’t seem to do anything for me. It never enriched me or fulfilled any part of my life, and I found after dropping spirituality that my eyes were opened and I was allowed to question things that, had I taken on a faith-based perspective, I originally would have been offended by or simply ignored as the work of people who didn’t “understand”.
    That being said, my POV may not be for everyone, because spirituality may work for people in a way I cannot understand. On the other hand, I find it grossly offensive to have someone claim that God has chosen to fulfill a part of their life (i.e. Pat Robertson) whereas for all my piety as a child I was not allowed to see even a glimpse of this theoretically undeniable truth.
    My ultimate conclusion was that nothing should be taken on faith, not even God. This may sound like I’m preaching to the choir, especially with a group of scientists. However, I also decided that we cannot be faulted for holding God up to standards by what we see is right, rather than simply assuming that there is a higher purpose, and if it is good, then great, and if not, then we’re screwed. If we aren’t given any guidance personally on what is right or wrong, then it is our obligation to use what we learned in life and come to our own conclusions by it.
    Now, it might be said that the Bible has given us a moral compass, but that is simply not true. The Bible is simply another perspective out of a ton of holy scriptures, and out of each of those have arisen a multitude of religions each having a different perspective on what to say or do. God personally telling each and every one of us how to guide our lives would be a definitive moral compass. The individual interpretations we derive from scripture/science/word of mouth/common sense is work of our own intelligence, instinct, and accomplishment.
    So what has my conclusion been in these miniscule 24 years? God, as I have seen him in the past, has a responsibility to humanity beyond just letting us go out on our own and do our own thing. In fact, he has been lax in his responsibility as a nurturer and supporter, as any parent/creator would be held accountable for. Now, God, if he truly is worthy of such a name, in his wisdom and power might decide to give us the freedom to do what we want and if we die off or are killed by chance, fine, but we will all learn from it.
    However, it is certain that God could make a better world that nurtures and protects us and allows us to grow and learn. As his creation, he owes us that much: we aren’t simply his toys to observe and experiment with, we are literally his sons and daughters. The trials of life may make life that much more enriching for some of us, but at what price?
    How about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome? Is there any justice in me living a fuller, more free, and enriching life if the price is that every 50 of 100,000 births in the US are simply thrown out by chance their first year? In a secular government, yes, there is. That is the bad luck of the world and there is no reason to worry about what can’t be changed. But when there is a deity existing in this universe, that is an inexcusable price to pay. If God is a magical, infallible, omnipotent authority, he can make the world so that we can live this freely without the danger of so many children dying in their first year, before they can even think coherently. If he is not such an authority, then he does not deserve my attention, because life is hard enough on this earth without trusting in some being that is either unable or unwilling to take such an atrocity off the board forever.
    The simple fact is that our lives serve no utility: if they did, nobody would die unless they reached an appropriate age where they could fulfill that purpose. If there is such a purpose, one that can’t possibly make sense to me until I reach the afterlife, then there is no point trying to learn that purpose. So far in life there is nothing to suggest such a cosmic purpose that necessitates the creation of an infant, then its destruction and the grief it causes. If one such purpose exists, there still remains the question of excusing it. It is, in all likelihood, inexcusable: for if the afterlife is an inevitability, it is still always there and eternity awaits us. The preciousness of life is in its limit, and that we will only live it once. This makes life more valuable than any afterlife by a long shot: it is, after all, our one and only chance at this.
    But, if the preciousness of life is in its limit, doesn’t that mean that the existence of S.I.D.S. and the danger of living from the moment you’re born makes it more precious? No. Death is always an inevitability. If everyone lived to 75, you might make the case that we would waste those 75 years and not live as fully, because death could come at any moment. However, if everyone lived to 75, that would be argument that God exists and wants us to live long, fulfilling lives. The inequities of life in the forms of human atrocity and random tragedy aren’t spices to life. Cayenne pepper is a spice to life. Atrocity and tragedy are just terrible things that we feel we have to justify in order to overcome. In the end, there is no justification. We may learn from pain, but we also learn equally from pleasure.
    The human being should experiment outside of his or her boundaries of what is right and wrong: that is how we ultimately learn. However, the consequences for it are foolishly overblown. They wouldn’t be if life was like a video game, and we could simply reset and try again, but when your one and only chance is taken away at 3 weeks old, without even the chance to screw up, my morality tells me that is simply cruelty coming from any God.
    And since I choose not to take anything on faith, being told that “the Lord works in mysterious ways” or “maybe this is all part of a plan” is never a good answer to me. The hardships of life are all things I can learn from secularly, without having to put up with an answer like that, which, honestly, I find to be pandering and insensitive. I prefer harsher explanations: “shit happens.”
    Not everything has to happen for a reason, and not every cloud has to have a silver lining. No one says the opposite: that every silver has to be a bit cloudy, or every beautiful day has to suck just a little bit. The search for purpose in tragic circumstances, therefore, is hopeless optimism in my opinion. But then, perhaps that’s why I’ve always been labelled a pessimist. I’ve never proclaimed that every beautiful day has to suck a little bit, I just choose not to have faith that every cloud has a silver lining.

  29. Josh

    P.S. I may not have faith in God, but I am psychic. And right now JSpur is thinking “Josh, if you want to write 1300 words, you should work some more on Einherjar.

  30. JSpur

    Josh, I found what you wrote in your long post really thought provoking and in a lot of respects not all that different from the way I think about this stuff.
    And my instant reaction to your short post was, you got that right, podna. MORE PAGES!

  31. Arcane Gazebo

    I think no one will be surprised that this is now the longest comment thread, measured by character count, by a factor of three over the #2 longest thread. The top four longest comments are also in this thread.
    Lemming: I chose an extremely marginal intervention in the BTK case because I wanted it to be uncontroversial from the free will/moral test standpoint. After nine murders, Rader’s moral character is pretty well established and no one has much sympathy for his free will. However, you are quite right: you can run this argument iteratively for a long ways. Certainly a benevolent god would have prevented all of the BTK killings. I’m inclined to believe that in a world with a benevolent god, there is a huge difference in suffering from the present world: no murder, rape, torture, crippling poverty, debilitating disease, natural disasters… at some point, one starts chipping away at less severe suffering, asking if it’s justified or not. And as you say, there is no magic line to be drawn between justified and gratuitous suffering.
    But this doesn’t mean it’s not a meaningful distinction. One can imagine universes with very small amounts of suffering that would be consistent with a benevolent god: suppose a very peaceful universe where the only suffering is when this one dude stubs his toe that one time. (I want to distinguish between an omnibenevolent god, who always has to pursue the most benevolent possible outcome, and a merely benevolent god who might balance his benevolence with concerns about free will or interestingness. More on this shortly.) And then one can imagine subtracting instances of suffering one-by-one from this universe until you get to one of the extremely peaceful universes. At what point does it become consistent with a benevolent god?
    This is a classic sorites paradox. I’m not bald, and if a not-bald person loses one hair, he doesn’t suddenly become bald. But if I lose one hair enough times, eventually I’ll only have a few left and I’ll definitely be considered bald. There’s no magic line that defines the exact number of hairs between bald and not-bald, but it’s still meaningful to say that I’m not bald. I’d say it’s the same way with drawing the line on acceptable amounts of suffering.
    Where that line would be drawn in practice presumably depends on exactly what kind of god is being posited, how much suffering he is willing to allow in exchange for variety of experience. An omnibenevolent god is presumably limited to those universes with no suffering whatsoever. Are there any nontrivial examples? I don’t know, but if not, maybe an omnibenevolent god never creates a universe at all.
    On a different subject, I feel a bit guilty for using the “would you be willing to justify your beliefs to the victim of a horrific crime” line, twice no less. It might be rhetorically effective but it’s just an emotional appeal and of course doesn’t relate to whether your beliefs are correct. I guess I got worked up emotionally due to the subjects I was writing about. So, apologies for the cheap shots.

  32. Josh

    I think Lemming will agree with me, incidentally, on the power of conversion. For example, when The Hulk was having a terrible crisis of faith based on the fact that he turns into a mindless destructive machine every time he gets riled up, he eventually found Jesus through evangelical channels, and now he fights villains with the Word of God by enforcing Christian beliefs and methods in ways that seem excessive, like trying to put plaques of the 10 Commandments in front of court houses and trying to have Intelligent Design taught in science classes…

  33. Lemming

    Managed to make it to salsa in time, and still get home and pound out a nice session of DDR.
    AG: No worries on playing rough. First, I started it, and second, I appreciate being slapped around. If you remember years back when ya’ll really worked me over on the whole sleeping bag thing (sorry, no love for those without context), you certainly managed to make me twitchy/uncomfortable. Eventually I shook it off, and at that point, I really appreciated it. Go ahead and shake the tree–anything that stands is nice and stable, anything that falls needs a good looking over before I put it back.
    That being said, you’ve managed to cast some doubt over my assumption that my core beliefs are compatible with at least a possible interpretation of a just, loving God. I expect they still are, but I can’t really say without some time to digest. I will say that I can see some of my arguments as flawed. I still have a great deal of difficulty with the idea of a being who would only intervene sometimes, since the world would seem an especially cruel, unfair place to anyone just across the threshold. I made the argument, though, that we expect ourselves to find a reasonable compromise in the freedom/security debate, so why can’t God do the same for this other conundrum? Certainly He/* could do a better job than we can.
    I still find something fundamentally flawed with the notion of judging what suffering is worthy of protecting against or not, but I’m not sure I can reason about it logically. At the very least, some of my own arguments can be used to shoot down my earlier statements, so there.
    A lot of how I feel stems from my sense of personal responsibility. I can actually get freakishly possessive of the consequences of my mistakes, if that makes any sense (you know me, so I bet it does). To quote everyone’s favorite pedophile, “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways.” The same sentiment is expressed well in, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but I really dig that song, so there. It seems to me that if we want a better world, it’s our responsibility to make it for ourselves. In practice, however, we’re not very good at this. I know I fall short of living up to what I want to see in the rest of the world, so eh. Theoretically, technology could advance to the point where we would implement some increasingly-nearly perfect system to prevent such tragedies, and once and for all serve justice properly. Is Nietzsche reading? I’ve got a project I think he’d be interested in.
    My fixation on this sort of thing can, it seems, get out of hand. On multiple occasions, after “rough times” of some sort or another, I have left people dumbfounded wrt my emotional reaction. I’m so focused on what share of the problem is mine alone, and I’m left with this odd emotional vacancy that throws people off (wrt certain emotions, anyway). “But aren’t you angry?” “Buh, angry? Why?”
    Eh. There’s more to that though, and it’s well off-topic. Oh wow, that should so be a chain of stores that sells overpriced clothing no-one thinks is cool: “Off Topic.”
    I’ve always hated the statement of the Sorites Paradox. I can still remember you telling it to me (the first time I’d heard it), describing a pile of sand. The problem lies in casting an int or double to a bool. The statement “If I take one grain of sand away from the pile, it is still a pile” is only true with some probability equal to the integral over the probability distribution of all piles of sand with more than either 2 or 3 grains (depending on semantics). If you reword the statement to actually preserve the information it tries to hide, you end up with a simple tautology: “If I take one grain away from N grains of sand, I have N-1 grains of sand.” Note that we don’t even have to worry about defining the case of N ?”, which is always true (for the case N

  34. Mason

    Wow…lots of text to read when I should have gone to bed….
    Josh wrote: “No one says the opposite: that every silver has to be a bit cloudy, or every beautiful day has to suck just a little bit.” The only answer I can give to this is that you haven’t known me long enough. No 666 points for you!
    Given the thread, I’d like to quote one of my t-shirts: “Thank God I’m an Atheist!”
    Also, I have another insensitive (but hilarious, IMO) quote to pass along:
    “There are four kinds of Homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.” (Ambrose Bierce)
    And since I’m already spewing quotes, here’s another one: “White man is a devil and the biggest devil amongst white men is Mason.” (from the autobiography of Malcolm X)
    Sandpiles: This example reminds me of why I find granular media so fascinating. At one level, it’s better to use a description as a collection of discrete objects (like when you pick up a single bead with your hand) and other times it’s appropriate to think of them as a continuous medium (like if you have a bed of sand and force it up and down to get Faraday patterns), and there are so many awesome mathematical and physics issues with trying to go from the former (microscopic) description to the latter (macroscopic). (By the way, I am using the terms “microscopic” and “macroscopic” in the sense of statistical mechanics via individual quantities versus averaged quantities rather than whether one needs to use a microscope to see anything.)

  35. lidarose

    After reading this whole thread, with great interest but not always total comprehension, I find myself agreeing most with lemming despite his own doubts. And I’d like to add my own conviction, developed through 53 years of living on this planet, that whether God exists or not and what the nature of this God might be, if indeed God exists, can best be discovered by doing rather than talking. To get back to what Bono was trying to convey with those somewhat strange-sounding statements, I believe he was trying to tell us that the poor and weak might be able to teach us something about God if we are willing to sit at their feet and learn. And I believe he was trying to say that each and every person has at their core a spirit that is inimitable, unconquerable, in some way beautiful, and worthwhile. Where that comes from and how to respond to that in a person are the things we have to figure out for ourselves.
    So many things I have done in this life without having a clear idea why, just knowing in my gut they were right, and then later I realized why those things were right. It really isn’t necessary to have everything proved and figured out and put in a nice neat scientific package before taking action that you know in your gut is the right thing to do. I think all you guys have good instincts, loving hearts, and finely-tuned BS detectors, else you would not be outraged at the kind of things you express outrage at in your posts. It is unfortunate that you are grappling with the God-idea in an age when so many, especially those with a great deal of political and/or cultural power have been making a mess of things (and much worse) in God’s name. It makes it all so much more difficult to make sense of. But as I said above, action, DOING, can play a huge part in helping a person discover the truth about God, faith, spirituality, etc. I challenge you all to get out there and make a difference in the lives of the poor and disadvantaged in some way, and then reflect upon your experience, and then do more, and I assure you that in time you will have a better understanding of what Bono was trying to get at… and Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and a whole bunch of other people who have grappled with the very same issues you are discussing here. One thing you are all right about: there are no easy or pat answers, and anyone who tries to tell you there are has not encountered the complexity of life yet. I will just tell you the same thing that I tell an acquaintance who tries to tell me I will burn in hell if I don’t go along with her creationist ideas: I can only operate on the here and now, and rather than spend my life arguing with her about where this world came from, I choose to try to make the world that is here a better place for my having been here.
    Thanks for listening. Oh,m and for the record, I agree with Mason that it is quite presumptious of Bono to assume that we can all agree on anything!!!

  36. lidarose

    Oops, I meant to sign that post… in case you-all don’t know who I am, well, zifnab knows me rather well… and I’ve met you all (or most of you) and spent time with you over the years. So I hope you don’t mind me reading your posts and joining in the discussion now and then.
    All my best,

  37. JSpur

    Susan, it’s nice to have the participation and thoughts of someone else from my own, ahem, age group. So I for one appreciate your comments. There is weight to your thoughts, and I sure respect them. But the problem with your path to enlightment is that it requires so much WORK! It’s much easier to derive one’s answers on these matters through an a priori process and then howl them at the moon. Even if one’s moon howling takes the form of crime fiction.

  38. Lemming

    … oh, you said howl, my bad!

  39. JSpur

    I sure hope I wasn’t expected to get that (he said, to the eventual collective snickering of mathematicians and physicists and computer scientists……)

  40. Lemming

    Actually, that’s the guitar tab for part of the signature riff from Ozzy Ozborne’s Bark at the Moon. First thing I thought of when I read your post. 😛

  41. Josh

    I have a question to put before the court:
    I could easily post this on the next entry, but this comment section is going so well that I thought I’d open up another topic Christian-related.
    I was driving to the 101 today when I saw the Hollywood United Methodist Church (on Highland just a block north of Hollywood for those of you who want to see for yourselves). The billboard proclaimed the following message:
    “Pray for peace and justice.”
    Now, I’m curious, since I’m a little fuzzy on my Christian teachings along these lines, but isn’t justice a concept that goes directly against the teachings of Christianity?
    By which I mean, of course, “turn the other cheek.” Turn the other cheek seems to, if anything, reject the cry for justice. “An eye for an eye” is a form of justice, but “turn the other cheek” and simply forgiving one’s neighbor for doing wrong against someone else or yourself seems to me like a concept that goes beyond something as harsh as seeking out justice against those who do wrong.
    Discuss. I’m interested in hearing how I got this wrong.

  42. Arcane Gazebo

    Oh, you had to post the 43rd comment. Just when this thread had arrived at the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. I’m tempted to delete it. :)
    Anyway, I think the idea is that God is allowed to mete out justice, but you are not supposed to go vigilante and try to mete out justice on his behalf. I imagine it’s ok to pray for justice, insofar as you are just asking God to hurry it up with the justice already.
    Perhaps The State may also pursue justice for purposes of secular government, depending on the interpretation.
    The one thing that is pretty clear is that Christians aren’t supposed to fight back, even if the cause is just. The full verse on cheekiness (in the KJV) is Matthew 5:39, “But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.”
    “Resist not evil,” I don’t think it gets much clearer than that.

  43. lidarose

    Justice is a very important issue for Christians, at least for Catholic Christians. It is overly simplistic to say that Christians must just accept whatever evil comes their way… I know the current media and climate paint Christians as borderline morons and zealots who don’t have a clue, but as with all groups (religious and otherwise) there are all kinds of people who hold these beliefs, and many of them are brilliant people who have given these issues (justice, existence of God, the problem of pain, etc.) much thought and consideration as well as intense research and study. I don’t have time to respond fully right now, but will try to post later tonight some thoughts and perhaps some references about this.
    Be careful about taking a single verse out of context from the Bible, or any other writing for that matter. There has been much study on this passage, I am sure, and perhaps that study can shed some light on this question. Again, I’ll have to research this a bit and get back to you on it.

  44. Arcane Gazebo

    Shellock: Your proposal combines interestingly with Mason’s implication that Jesus was talking about spanking.
    Susan: You are right, I was being overly simplistic with that statement. I need to resist the tendency to lump all Christians in with particular interpretations of the Bible.
    And needless to say I have been ignoring the work of two thousand years of theologians, who have certainly addressed these issues. Indeed, religious scholars at various times in history have claimed biblical support for wars, crusades, inquisitions, repressive governments, and slavery, so I’ve no doubt the easier stuff like justice and self-defense is covered.
    I’m aware that taking Bible verses out of context can be highly misleading. The verse that is usually cited against homosexuality comes from a long list of archaic tribal laws that no one would think of observing. On the other hand, the context of the verse I quoted above is the Sermon on the Mount, the centerpiece of Jesus’ moral lessons, in which he repeatedly praises strict pacifism. Likewise, throughout the Gospels Jesus sets out a mostly consistent line on nonviolence, forgiveness, love of one’s enemies, and so forth. The one exception I can find at a quick glance is the account of the Last Supper in Luke 22, in which Jesus instructs his disciples to arm themselves in order to resist the priests who are coming to arrest thim. However, Jesus does ultimately decide against resistance here, and heals one of the priests who takes a sword wound, so even this story comes out consistent with his earlier teaching. So I don’t think I’m misrepresenting Jesus here, unless there are better examples I don’t know about.
    Of course most forms of Christianity aren’t based solely on the teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels–you’ve got the rest of the Bible, the doctrine of individual sects, additional texts like the Book of Mormon, and so forth. So this is where I get too simplistic by suggesting that the Sermon on the Mount should be absolute moral doctrine for all Christians.

  45. Justin

    One related point about this quoting of ancient documents: beware translations. I vaguely remember reading somewhere that some of the more bizarre passages (presumably Leviticus – can’t get much more bizarre than that) may have actually made more sense in the original dialect, but reached their present twisted state through a combination of linguistic evolution and mistranslation. Back to the topic at hand – depending on the choice of words that got translated to English “resist” and “evil”, the original (Latin?) may not have quite the passivity that we read today. From what little I know of Christianity it would make more sense that the passage was intended as a message of Gandhi-like nonviolent opposition to “evil” rather than complete lack of resistance. But that’s pure speculation on my part…
    Likewise Mason I’d be surprised if many other languages use the same word for face-cheek and butt-cheek like English does, so although the spanking fetish interpretation is possible I suspect it’s not correct. :-)

  46. Lemming

    As far as number of posts, now that the prestigious 42 has been passed we’re left with few nearby options. We have:
    69, for obvious reasons.
    72, twice the previous record.
    Best get crackin’!
    On another note, I was amused that this Dinosaur Comics strip ran during the course of this comment thread. Topical, especially from your celebrity-twin (or are you Ryan North’s celebrity twin?).

  47. lidarose

    Thanks for your comments, AG. You’re right about the reference to the Sermon on the Mount, and that Jesus does seem to have been very strongly against violence as a method of conflict resolution. My comments on taking a verse out of context refer specifically to the discussion that ensued about resisting evil…
    But let me take a different perspective here — I want to go back to the original question, about the “Pray for Peace and Justice” billboard. Josh asked, “Now, I’m curious, since I’m a little fuzzy on my Christian teachings along these lines, but isn’t justice a concept that goes directly against the teachings of Christianity?”
    Jesus Christ had a lot to say about justice. As I understand it (and I’m not a theologian), what he taught was quite challenging for the Jewish people of his time and it is just as challenging for us now. Basically he encouraged us to work towards justice in our everyday lives, with every person we meet, and in every situation in which we find ourselves. One source I consulted puts it this way: “[Christians] are called by God to protect human life, to promote human dignity, to defend the poor and to seek the common good.” (see Everyday Christianity: To Hunger and Thirst for Justice) The philosopher Jacques Maritain wrote,”Christianity proclaimed that where love and charity are, there God is; and that it is up to us to make every man our neighbor, by loving him as ourselves and by having compassion for him, that is, in a sense, by dying unto ourselves for his sake.” (see Christianity and Democracy – December 1949) This is a rather tall order, and one that, admittedly, few Christians live up to! But it gives us something to aim for…
    We have to get to some sort of agreement on what we mean by “justice”: I propose that justice is more than just a legalistic term, a matter of punishing wrong-doers; it is really about human beings treating one another with respect and compassion, and about affirming the dignity of every person. Thus, an employer failing to provide his or her employees with a living wage is behaving unjustly; an individual who cheats his employer also behaves unjustly; a person or a corporation or some other entity who destroys the environment is behaving unjustly; a society which discriminates against people according to the color of their skin is an unjust society. (Indeed, a person who molests a child is behaving unjustly, and this injustice has been committed by all sorts of people, including some ordained priests and ministers, and covered up by others. Unfortunately, it is possible for an individual to profess to be a Christian and even to study Christ’s teachings in depth, but still fall very short of these teachings! But countless other Christians have done better than this, and it is not the fault of Christianity per se that these individuals have committed these horrible transgressions.) At the same time, w.r.t. justice in the legalistic sense, Christianity is not incompatible with the principles behind our judicial system (what many of us think of when we hear the word “justice”) — it is in part for the protection of the population that we try and sentence wrong-doers, and in part to hold the wrong-doers accountable for their actions. I don’t think Jesus said anything that would prevent the State from holding these principles and acting appropriately on them.
    So Christianity and justice, as concepts, go very well together and there is no contradiction. Unfortunately, since it has been humans who have tried to live out the Christian ideals, they have been lived out imperfectly, to say the least!! But this does not mean that it is not worth continuing to try to strive for these ideals. With respect to the issue of justice, every generation of Christians encounters some unique challenges and some others that are not so unique to its time. In the present, we are grappling with the contrast of huge personal wealth and abject poverty living side by side, with the question of whether/when to exercise force against another country, with the issues of homosexuality and medical ethics which impact so many in a very personal way… the list is long, and most of these issues are related to justice in some way. There are no easy answers, and Christians ought to be aware of that. For those who choose to study Jesus’ teachings on justice (an exercise of free will) and attempt to live them out, Christianity provides a lens through which to view the world in all its complexity, and Christian beliefs informs their response to injustice.
    One other thing I want to say, about prayer — since we are discussing “pray[ing] for peace and justice”. I have begun to understand through the years that prayer does not change God, though it is sometimes referred to as the act of talking to God. Done with the “right” attitude, prayer changes the one who is praying. I cannot truly pray for peace and justice without wanting that myself, and without committing myself, at least in some small way, to acting on that desire for peace and justice. So praying for peace and justice is a valid action, and worth a reminder.

  48. Arcane Gazebo

    Justin: That’s a good point about translation; one might at least get a better approximation by looking at the verse in the various English translations. If I remember my Latin well enough I could also try looking at one of the old Latin editions, although the originals were in Greek. (And presumably whatever Jesus said was in Aramaic, but I don’t suppose we still have that rendering. Not that I know Aramaic, either.)
    I’ve read somewhere that in Islam, it is considered necessary to read the Koran in the original Arabic to understand it properly.
    Lemming: At one point I was thinking about working a reference to that comic into this discussion. “The Warm Embrace of Cold, Steely Logic” would be a good name for a blog.

  49. Lemming

    If Babelfish supported each step along the Aramaic -> Greek -> Latin -> English translation path, conceivably one could use an iterative solver to approximate what original text would result in what we have now. Each of those operators has a considerable null space, however, and their composition can only be worse, I expect. Given that the translation is only context-dependent up to the level of sentences, or at worst paragraphs, the operator is very tight around the diagonal (it’s block diagonal with a roughly constant upper bound on the block size) and thus scales linearly up to the full text of the Bible.

  50. Justin

    Another problem with what Jesus actually said is that there is little or no documentation even within a generation of his life. The Gospels IIRC date to the second half of the first century, and the Bible as a whole to the Council of Nicea in the third century. So who knows what was lost, added, or changed in those intervening decades (centuries, in some cases). And thus we get Dan Brown making himself a mint, and amusing lawsuits in Italy about “abusing public credulity” – if only that were a crime here!
    Was the Bible originally in Greek? I would have expected Latin at that point – even the Eastern Empire didn’t revert to Greek in official matters until IIRC the sixth century, shortly after Justinian. Though what the Imperial government used and what a religious community used would not necessarily be the same…
    Obscure fantasy reference: Monarchies of God series by Paul Kearney. Not especially good books IMHO, but his treatment of the origins of Christianity-equivalent and Islam-equivalent was very very interesting, and speaks directly to the point about a religion’s official holy book being written (or set in official form) generations after its prophet.
    Thread meta-goals for Lemming: how about pushing this until its word count equals the rest of the top N threads combined?

  51. Wren

    Berkeley is one of the few schools to offer Aramaic. If you spend enough time in Brewed Awakenings on North Side, which is frequented by both berkeley students and students from Holy Hill, you can actually find people who read it and who hold qualified opinions on this sort of thing.

  52. lidarose

    For anybody who wants to investigate this issue of the languages and origins of the Bible more thoroughly, the book Misquoting Jesus : The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, by Bart Ehrman, is just out and apparently very thorough. Read about it on Aamazon — there are quite a few reviews. I heard him in an interview on the Diane Rehm show (on NPR — the archived edition is the 11 a.m. show here)
    Another excellent Bible scholar whom I recently heard speak is John Pilch. He has written a number of books that give a cultural context to the various books and authors of the New Testament.
    For the issue of pain (how a benevolent, loving God can allow pain, etc. — I believe this thread started out with that) check out C.S.Lewis’s book, The Problem of Pain.

  53. lidarose

    I liked Justin’s suggestion better. But I’ll let the rest of you write the other several thousand words…I think I’m past my quota….
    Is anybody watching the Olympics? How about it, AG, are we going to have an Olympics post?

  54. Josh

    lidarose –
    That argument is one that I would readily except. I suppose that what it boils down to is the stigma I have, and therefore the connotations I percieve to be on the word “justice” in modern society. I would be nitpicking to say so, but in all honesty I suppose I would prefer “pray for peace and fairness” as opposed to the use of the word justice. I suppose there are too many times when the more zealous Christians in the public eye use a term like “justice” that I cringe and prepare for my least favorite word, “crusade” to be uttered.
    Now, as an aspiring writer I hope to never back down from a word choice when there’s more ‘politically correct’ diction, so in this case I blame my concern about the use of the word “justice” on hypersensitivity due to the, let’s face it, somewhat strained religious beliefs that are rubbing each other the wrong way these days.
    Anyway, in summation, thanks for putting a new perspective on that phrasing for me. I promise I didn’t burn down any Danish embassies over it.

  55. lidarose

    When a faction — in this case religious faction (actually more than one of those, this time!) — tries to co-opt a word, whether on purpose or not, sometimes it’s okay to let them have it, but other times we must put up a fight. (We just can’t let the religious Right have their way! They pick up on that and take it as license to do even more outrageous things!) I think the latter is the case with the word justice. It has a strong meaning, much deeper than fairness. And the only way to combat this is to use the word appropriately in its proper context. There is a currently a slogan: “If You Want Peace, Work for Justice” that originated from Pope Paul VI but has been taken to heart by many, many groups seeking to effect positive changes in our American society and in other areas of the world, especially the Third World (is that term still used?) …I can’t write anything like that (the slogan) without looking it up on the web to be sure I have it right, and in the process I came across this site which has a ton of quotes on peace and justice, from very diverse sources ideologically, geographically and historically. It is interesting to note that the word justice is used in many quotes here in a way that is more appropriate. There’s hope for the word!
    And, Josh — think of yourself as a writer, not an aspiring writer — you’re already doing it!

  56. Mason

    I believe ‘Third World’ is considered politically incorrect these days, and people phrase things in terms of Developed, Developing, and something like Not Developed [personally, I’d just use the term Hopeless and be done with it 😛 ].
    The 137 reference was meant for Gazebo. He understands. [Actually, many of the others have at least seen this, but it probably has a special meaning for Travis. :) ]

  57. Arcane Gazebo

    Susan: I hadn’t planned on posting anything about the Olympics, although that could certainly change if something post-worthy happens. I could also point the next open thread in that direction.
    Wren: You got through grad school without picking up a coffee habit? I’m impressed.
    Mason: 137 would be a good number indeed, better if this were a physics thread (but those don’t get quite so many comments). On a related note, the Berkeley undergrad quantum course is numbered Physics 137.

  58. Wren

    No coffee, no alcohol, no cigarettes, no pot, no tranquilizers.
    I have a tea habit you would not believe, supported by the pushers at Peets’. That “new” downtown Peets? Hole in my wallet.
    I’m not done with grad school yet. Getting there…

  59. Lemming

    Okay, I just noticed the post count. Could someone do the honors? plzkthx!
    Josh: Which set of “top” threads? If you make the list long enough, the target could always be “more comments than every other post combined.” We’ll see.
    And now, to justify my posting, random remark: Ooh, someone mentioned the olympics. I just found out that the guy who teaches the salsa class I go to is very busy right now–he’s part of the coaching staff for two ice dance teams for the Olympics this time around. USA’s #2 couple and also a pair from Uzbekistan.

  60. Josh

    Present Ted: Okay, wait… if you guys are really us, what number are we thinking of?
    (Futures Bill and Ted exchange looks)
    Futures Bill and Ted, simultaneously: “69, DUDES!”
    Presents Bill and Ted, simultaneously: “Woah!”
    (Both pairs of Bills and Teds exchange guitar solos simultaneously)

Comments are closed.