Squirrel Chasing

This post marks a milestone. It's the first time I've blogged about a Twitter exchange. Trying to peddle logic where the medium ensures the participants will just end up talking over each other isn't my idea of time well spent. John C. Wright likens fruitless argument to chasing a squirrel.

Yesterday my habitual meekness came into conflict with the only character traits that override it: my enmity toward theological error and my utter contempt for theological error being spouted from a position of smug epistemic closure.

So a guy popped up in my Twitter feed complaining about Vatican corruption. I've got no problem with honest criticism of the Church's financial and administrative apparatus. Many in the hierarchy must agree, since institutional reform is one of the most often cited reasons Francis was elected.

Anyhow another commenter hijacked the thread with a non-sequitur about how belief in God is "preposterous" and answered believers who objected by implying that they're "gullible", the subtext being that he's not.

The thread-jacker further explained:

Believing in #God is like still believing the earth is flat BECAUSE texts, traditions & teachers say so [sic]

In the unlikely event that the above statement's manifold flaws don't pop out at you like Sick Boy and Begbie jumping out of a cupboard, here's a scorecard.

  • Non-sequitur: following a comment about the Vatican needing administrative reform with a denial of God's existence doesn't advance the discussion. It derails it.
  • False analogy: the earth's shape is an empirical question. God's existence is a metaphysical question.
  • Chronological snobbery: glibly dismisses Scripture, Tradition, and all theistic philosophers on the implied charge (by way of connection with flat earth-ism) of being "outdated".
  • Ad hominem: note the underlying implication: "Believers are like flat-earthers (in that both are idiots)."
  • And most damning of all, begging the question: the statement assumes a negative answer to the question being discussed, viz. "Does God exist?" and posits that presumption as evidence of itself.
I illustrated the commenter's circular logic by asking what if all the great teachers he summarily dismissed were right, only to be met with:
That would be bizarre, [sic]
Pointing out that he answered circular logic with more circular logic, I asked the question he begged, namely "Why?" His answer was a clumsy attempt at forcing believers to either deny God's existence or blame Aleister Crowley's debauchery on God.

Philosophically inclined readers may recognize this gambit as an appeal to the Problem of Evil. There are really only two arguments against belief in God, and this is the more successful one because it mainly operates at the emotional level.

The standard Argument from Evil goes like this: "How can you believe in God when there's so much evil/suffering in the world?"

Anyway, 140 characters aren't nearly enough to properly demolish this red herring, but luckily I've got more than enough room here.

I understand why people take such appeals to sentiment seriously. Who hasn't suffered a grave injustice or witnessed horrific suffering (at least on TV)? Among the several points that people who field this argument miss is that Christianity was instituted to address, and gives the only solution that's consistent with reality for, the evil and suffering in the world (short version: Christ purifies evil by taking it upon himself and joins our sufferings to His, making them redemptive).

Yet an unstated assumption behind pointing out evil to disprove God's existence is that the reality of evil has somehow escaped believers for centuries. That premise is absurd, as a cursory glance at Scripture, the testimony of the Church Fathers, or the writings of theologians will abundantly show.

On the logical level, an appeal to the Problem of Evil has two fatal flaws. First, it relies on the unstated premise that a universe with evil/suffering in incompatible with God. Not only does the argument fail to demonstrate this claim, it's roundly refuted by Christians themselves, who've always acknowledged the realities of both God and evil.

Consequentially, the Problem of Evil doesn't disprove God's existence. It doesn't even try to. At most, it's an attempt to disprove God's omnipotence and/or goodness.

But here's the rub. Trying to disprove God's goodness/omnipotence by pointing out evil is inescapably self-defeating. The argument's force comes from the implicit scandal of an all-good, omnipotent God allowing evil and suffering. Sounds reasonable, right? The problem is that this sense of scandal relies upon the assumption that an all-good, omnipotent God does in fact exist.

Follow me on this one. Christian theology teaches that God is the source and measure of all good. Evil lacks independent existence. It's an imperfection--a parasite on the good. Therefore neither good nor evil has any meaning without God. This means there's no way to deny God's existence because you're scandalized by evil without simultaneously denying the evil that scandalized you in the first place.

I anticipate objections along the lines of, "What about people who don't accept the Christian metaphysic of good and evil?" Remember the context. The Problem of Evil was framed as an attempt to refute Christian belief in God. Unless your argument addresses your opponent's actual position, you're arguing against a straw man, which achieves nothing.

What's more, people who don't accept the Christian view of good and evil, at least partially and unwittingly, are quite rare in the West. Some appeal to moral systems based on evolutionary, behavioral, or economic theory, but then they log off and continue living their lives according to objective norms of right and wrong.

Besides, anyone who sincerely does think that all morals are reducible to quirks of natural selection, cultural conditioning, or class struggle doesn't really believe in good or evil at all; just what's useful/detrimental to the propagation of the species, the society, or the party.

So here's a bit of rhetoric for you. Look at this image.

And tell me honestly that your reaction was just an arbitrary evolutionary response, a result of social conditioning, or purely political.

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