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Machan's Musings - Good God, Bad Deeds?
James Franklin’s argument, that either we accept God as limited by various constraints to deal with such matters or we give up morality altogether because materialist atheism leaves no room for it, set me thinking again—I take it that’s a point of Think!
I am an atheist and I also concern myself a great deal with ethics or morality—I teach, after all, business ethics every term and have done this for nearly 25 years. Have I been completely confused? If not, why wasn’t my secular philosophical framework acknowledged?
So the very existence of evil as a matter of absolute seriousness is a substantial reason to believe that the materialist world picture is false. Since the leading alternative theory involves a good and powerful God, that is a reason to believe there must be some solution to the problem of evil. [Franklin, 2003]
There is a non-sequitur here, I believe, and it recalls my own puzzle.
First, the "leading alternative" among those atheists who complain about God not remedying things that are at face value very wrong in the world—not so much evil but bad things (the former covering bad things people produce by choice)—is not really known. Most reductive materialists of the kind Ted Honderich exemplifies [Honderich, 2002a] deny morality altogether (although they do sound off a lot about international normative issues [Honderich, 2002b], which I find puzzling—why isn’t it "que sera, sera" for them all the way?). But there are many naturalists, as distinct from materialists, who do not believe in God or any other supernatural being, who also take morality very seriously. I believe among these would be Hillary Putnam, Martha Nussbaum [Nussbaum, Philippa Foot (Foot, 2001)], and quite a few others [e.g., Machan, 1998], and I do not believe that the alternatives Franklin lays out cover them.
In particular, Putnam and Nussbaum are neo-Aristotelian defenders of a non-reductive naturalism and in such a framework there is plenty of room for free will, standards of right conduct, and thus, ethics or morality. [Puttnam, 1994a]
But that’s just one problem with Franklin’s discussion. He also argues that God is constrained to deal only with what is physically and mathematically possible. Yet, to the best of my knowledge the God of Christianity can perform miracles. I believe, indeed, all the major religions hold that their deity can perform miracles or, at any rate, govern the affairs of the world as they will.
So here, then, is the difficulty about God and bad things happening: If an omnipotent God exists (who can perform miracles, such as turn water into wine, multiply a few into hundreds of loaves of bread, etc.,) and such a God is all good—which I take to mean would only do what is the right thing to do whenever the opportunity for doing anything arises—it is certainly mystifying why such a God would not prevent the suffering and death of thousands of innocents across the globe and throughout history. A catastrophe such as that wrought by the Southeast Asian tsunami would be a Draconian case in point. Failing to prevent it or to save its casualties is, indeed, akin to someone standing by idly while nearby a stroller with an infant rolls on to a busy motor way. (There is nothing, moreover, that this costs—taking a few steps to grab the stroller will not cost some more awful thing to happen elsewhere. And for God Almighty to thwart a natural disaster would, one may reasonably speculate, be nearly effortless.)
Second, how would someone who disbelieves in God make sense of morality? That’s a long story but there are quite a few live options. For example, one could argue that when evolution reached the human species, a sufficiently complicated, novel, and unique being emerged that had the capacity to make choices and the responsibility to make those choices good ones. And so such a being can think of what an omnipotent being who can make choices ought to do in circumstances in which he or she could prevent some terrible thing from happening. He or she should prevent it, even if it takes his or her miraculous power to achieve this goal. What other goals should miraculous powers serve, anyway, than to save innocents from awful fates? And if he or she does not, something’s seriously amiss—God isn’t omnipotent or isn’t omni-benevolent, which pretty much means that the kind of being God is supposed to be in most religions isn’t rationally believable.
It may be useful to mention, also, that Antony Flew’s recently reported "conversion" to a type of deistic theism, on grounds that some kind of intelligence would be required to account for life, is very problematic, in light of the scientifically established fact that intelligence itself presupposes life—that of a living brain—which, by this route seems to lead to an impasse: If an intelligent God created life, how did the life that gave rise to God’s intelligence emerge? But I leave this for the time being for discussions that are sure to follow Flew’s reported announcement.
Carrier, Richard. (2004) "Antony Flew Considers God…Sort of," http://www.secweb.org/asset.asp?AssetID=369.
Franklin, James. (2003) "Leibniz’s Solution to the Problem of Evil," Think, Issue 5 (Autumn).
Honderich, Ted (2002a). "How Free Are You?: The Determinism Problem," 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Honderich, Ted (2002b). "After the Terror," (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
Machan, T. R. (1998) "Classical Individualism" (London: Routledge).
Putnam, Hillary (1994). "Words & Life" (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
Nussbaum, Martha (1994). "Therapy of Desire" (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).
Philippa Foot, (2001). "Natural Goodness" (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2001).
Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University, Orange, CA. He is research fellow at the Hoover Institution and advises Freedom Communications, Inc., on libertarian issues. His most recent book is Objectivity (Ashgate, 2004).
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