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Jun 07 2010

Random Thought on Epicurus

PoE in summary:

http://twobluecrabs.com/?p=127

Something I wrote in a dialog about PoE, I thought I’d share. The context was a story someone told me about a childhood friend who died, and a statement by an adult subsequently that it was all part of god’s wonderful plan for us (that somehow the suffering would result in a net benefit):

“If god is omnipotent, these same results could have been achieved without suffering. Ergo, god prefers suffering as a means to an end, even when the same results could have been achieved without suffering. It’s like a dentist who chooses to not use pain killers, because he simply prefers to achieve the healthy tooth result via horrid suffering, with no added benefit. Theists seem to think that the only alternative is god making us ‘robots.’ But if god is omnipotent, he could achieve the same result without suffering and without making us robots–that’s the cool thing about omnipotence, you are free from constraints. If god is so constrained, then as Epicurus said, god is not omnipotent. But if god is omnipotent, then making people suffer unnecessarily is something he does without need or increased benefit. He simply prefers to make people suffer unnecessarily. He’s either not omnipotent or malevolent. So long as suffering exists, you can’t have both.”

It’s amazing how quickly theists will sell out god’s omnipotence to make god “good” in response to Epicurus. He goes from all powerful to utterly constrained in no time at all.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    Tyler Olsen

    Wow Tracie, this might be your shortest post ever! Too bad that Epicurus motivational poster misspelled "Atheists" though. That is my favorite quote with respect to gods. So simple, so provocative, and so powerful.

  2. 2
    Muriel

    They really put his omnipotence on the table? Every single theist I know retreats to God's mysterious ways and that we can't possibly understand why he does the things he does."No problem of evil. Problem of you, dumbass!", as I have heard it quite eloquently put by an atheist on YouTube.

  3. 3
    Afterthought_btw

    Omnipotence always seems to be the first to go. Probably because it is the hardest to defend with ad hoc reasoning.What I have noticed, especially recently, is that theists often just completely ignore omnipotence as a trait for god, and make up their own word for one of his traits, which they (just coincidentally, of course) call omnipotence.As far as I can gather, omnipotence now means something along the lines of:"Really, really powerful, but not so powerful that someone who disagrees with us can show that it is logically impossible."I can remember one conversation I got into, where I mentioned the problem I have with the trait of omnipotence being combined in a being with any other trait:A trait is a limitation, thus a being with a trait is limited, and can't be omnipotent.We got to the specific case of logic, and I was told something along the lines of:"But a god that was able to do the illogical wouldn't be more powerful than a god that was bound by logic because not being bound by logic would be ridiculous."What do you say to that? I mean…Gah.

  4. 4
    Chris

    Tracie, I think you mistyped "malevolent" instead of "benevolent" at the end there. God is either omnipotent or benevolent, not both.

  5. 5
    Mythnam

    This is pretty much how I respond when people make excuses about the Bible's instructions regarding slavery. They go on about how it was the culture of their time and how that was just the way things were, overlooking the fact that an omnipotent god could just do away with it if he found it objectionable.

  6. 6
    Joachim

    Win at logic, fail at spelling…

  7. 7
    Scott

    Good post Tracie. I too find that theists are often quick to sell out their particular god's omnipotence in an effort to make him look compassionate or "good". When those I've spoken to about Epicurus can't reconcile their beliefs with that statement they simply fall back on "well you (we) just don't understand God or the way he operates".My wife whom, when faced with Epicurus, likes to claim that omnipotence doesn't mean God has unlimited power. That's one of my favorite arguments to laugh at.

  8. 8
    tracieh

    Muriel:The problem of evil is unavoidable. Any god can subvert it but only by sacrificing either omnipotence or benevolence. The problem of “me” is that even if this god exists, if he is either wanting to harm people or incapable of assisting humankind, I have no interest in worshiping such a being…?Afterthought:While I am actually willing to accept the “all powerful within logical constraints,” PoE doesn’t ask for god to step outside logical constraints. That’s the beauty. Why can’t he alleviate suffering? He _can_, is generally the answer, but he _won’t_. At that point the question is “why not?” And the response to that is generally that he loves us, but somehow suffering is good. But since suffering isn’t good in and of itself, it goes to some “good” end we can’t see. And I’m left with—but there are many ways to achieve an end, could he achieve the same end without suffering…yes…? Then why suffering, beyond god’s preferred method? And I’m back to the dentist. Who would go to a dentist who didn’t offer pain killers, because the patient beliefs there is some inherent value to suffering thought the root canal…?Chris:Thanks. It was actually a “not” I left out. He either can’t stop it or doesn’t want to, is what was intended.Scott:>"well you (we) just don't understand God or the way he operates".I love this as well. How do they happen to know in that case he’s not evil, is my response to that. It’s interesting how “we” can’t understand god, but in the face of facts that look malevolent, we’re supposed to assume god is good…but we can’t understand god? My thought is if we want god to be benevolent and all powerful in a world where child rape happens, then yes, we won’t ever understand that god, because that “god” makes not a lick of sense. But if we accept that things are as they appear, and if a god exists he either doesn’t care/wants to have children raped, or he’s incapable…then things add up. Alternately we can assume all things are as they appear and children get raped because people are something messed up, and there is no got in Heaven to help them. It’s we who need to step up, or nobody will.

  9. 9
    The Square Circle

    The response that I have considered from questions such as these is the Mormon response. (Yes, I know. I deconverted a few years ago.) It's interesting given the wonky Mormon cosmology. When confronted with this problem, Mormoms will first use the free-will defense, but because Mormons believe there was a "Pre-Existence"–where everyone existed in a spiritual realm before the physical realm was created–the response runs into a bigger problem. We chose Jesus when we knew that Jesus and God existed. There was no uncertainty. Everyone was with God, Jesus, and Satan. Mormons believe that in this Pre-Existence they were given a choice between Satan's plan and Jesus' plan. Silly choice. 1/3 chose Satan (they went straight to hell), 1/3 chose Jesus (they are the "light-skinned" people), and 1/3 were undecided (they are the "dark-skinned" people). Fucking ridiculous… but it's a subject for another time.Here, the free-will defense falls apart. Mormons must believe that free-will existed without the characteristics we find on Earth (suffering, ignorance, etc), therefore God can make free-will independent of the state of affairs on Earth. The question is now… Why did we forget the choice we made to follow Jesus in the pre-existence (if you're not a "dark-skinned" person), and must now choose Jesus a second time? Was the first choice not valid?Why must God create a world with suffering, when our ability to choose freely is shown to be independent of suffering or ignorance in the Pre-Existence?The Answer:Spiritual growth. We must be able to grow spiritually in the absence of knowledge, and in the presence of suffering. You can't grow without suffering and faith, and you can't have faith without ignorance.My First Thoughts:Why were we created as beings who needed to grow?Is it possible to grow in the after-life? (Such as the "spiritual prison" that exists to teach non-Mormons about Mormonism in the after-life?)I'm not sure of my answer yet… What do you guys think?

  10. 10
    tracieh

    >something messed upShould have been "sometimes messed up." I don't subscribe to inherent depravity of humankind. ;-)

  11. 11
    Strangelove

    What if an omnipotent god were completely indifferent and had no interest in human affairs at all, would he still be malevolent? Could the problem of evil be a case for a deistic god?

  12. 12
    Afterthought_btw

    Tracie – I agree with you wholeheartedly: indeed I often will grant that omnipotent includes adhering to logic just for the sake of argument. I suppose that with the PoE, though, I am used to theists saying something along the lines of:You can't truly feel pleasure if you don't know what it's like to be in pain. orFree will!!! Pain and evil only exists because of our ability to choose: god could get rid of these things, but then we'd have no free will.And although there are certainly very good arguments against these responses (the concept of heaven, for one), I find that the argument often becomes a little like trying to hold water in your hands. They always feel they have little bolt holes like 'incomprehensibility' or 'free will' they can run to, and so justify their continuing belief to themselves. The problem is that in effect, you often both end up trying to mind-read an incomprehensible, non-existent being.I guess I think it is most effective when people are analysing their own belief in god, rather than when you're trying to persuade them.

  13. 13
    Guillaume

    Epicurus was officially a deist, if I remember my philosophy classes on ethics correctly, thinking that the gods were outside our universe and uninterested by it, or us. I guess those questions were easier to conceive by Ancient Greeks, whose mythology was filled with unapologetically petty, vain, capricious, faillible gods. They might not have seriously believe in them, but their vision of divinity was much different than modern Christians. When one claims that God is both all powerful and all loving, then he/she has to do some serious double thinking to avoid facing the Problem of Evil. I am always amazed at the way Christian apologetics use the "free will" card. The existence of an omnipotent God is a contradiction with free will: they cannot both exist. But even if there was such a God who wanted mankind to stay free, it would not excuse his non interference in the world: he could act subrepticely to avoid evil to take place. An evil man could still act evil, but his actions would be stopped before they could hurt.

  14. 14
    Spoondoggle

    <<>>I do… sort of… see the worth of suffering… some suffering.I know what it is to be the outsider, the target of the school bullies and the people who never stopped being school bullies even when they left school. It's made me stronger in some ways, probably weaker in others, but, more importantly, it's given me a method of understanding others who are persecuted in one way or another.I do not know what it means to be gay, black, a foreigner or a woman, I don't know if it has an effect on how you think or feel or what that effect might be if there is one, but I do know what it means to be "other" and I know that this is something that needs to be fixed.Of course… that argument is only relevant if there is suffering in the world… so suffering does have worth, but only as long as suffering exists… shit. Fuck you god, fuck you, we only need the suffering because there is suffering, god off your lazy godbutt and fix it!

  15. 15
    Wired For Sound

    "When those I've spoken to about Epicurus can't reconcile their beliefs with that statement they simply fall back on "well you (we) just don't understand God or the way he operates"."Which is the equivalent of admitting that they worship a schizophrenic.

  16. 16
    Pawel

    I think that _sometimes_ people like to "sell out" god's omnipotence, but it seems really easy to just point out that, if he's "merely" just really powerful, he's basically a total ass by using his powers to appear in a tortilla instead of doing something better with his time.But mostly I agree with Muriel that most theists will just invoke the old "god-is-mysterious" defense when faced with this observation made by Epicurus.My favorite response is that it basically means that god has given us intellect and reasoning power, which seems to work reasonably well in other areas of life, but then decided that he'd pull the rug out from under us when we were wrestling with some of the most important questions out there. So he's still an ass.Not that trying to reason with people usually makes any difference…

  17. 17
    Ing

    Omnipotence is easy to loose…after all Superman would be boring without some limits.

  18. 18
    Xophoros

    Coming from a Mormon background, I grew up accepting that God was actually limited by some laws, and gave away omnipotence readily on this topic, but the problem of evil still goes over 90% of Mormons' heads (and certainly went over mine for long a time). This topic quite often turns into the discussion of free will (with Mormons at least), and how one of the few limitations god has was the capability of getting us to paradise/heaven/godhood without the trials of sin and repentance through our own free will (often argued as though it's the only logical route assuming the existence of god). I seem to recall this topic coming up on the show a few times, and you guys pointing out how malevolent it remains that a god would value the free will of a rapist or murderer over the life of an innocent child; or something similar. I still struggle with this topic in dialogue with intelligent ad hoc apologists who have rationalized this one over too many times.

  19. 19
    Guillaume

    Ironic also that, while theists are often eager to use free will as an argument when someone brings the problem of evil, they throw free will out of the window for practically everything else: mankind is triggered to sin since the Fall, one is tempted by Satan when he does something wrong, etc. In fact, mankind is so defenseless against its own wickedness that it cannot achieve salvation by its own means! The Christian perception of human nature is one where free will is absent, or at least very limited. Of course, there are atheists who are determinists, but determinist theists rarely have the honesty to be so all the way and have no problem contradicting themselves.

  20. 20
    tracieh

    Strangelove:>What if an omnipotent god were completely indifferent and had no interest in human affairs at all, would he still be malevolent? Could the problem of evil be a case for a deistic god?According to the phrasing, this would be the "unwilling" god. So Epicurus is correct: God is either unwilling or unable to stop evil.Personally, however, see notes below on child rape. Would doing nothing be wrong? Is having the power to halt horrific harm you’re aware of, but doing nothing, malevolent? Generally we would label it a horrible response. And I don’t see a god would get a pass on that. I would generally, however, only use PoE on someone claiming god is good–which I think most believers in the modern Western world do. Deists aren't likely to go to the wall for their god, as that god is an irrelevancy with no reason underlying their belief…?Afterthought:>You can't truly feel pleasure if you don't know what it's like to be in pain.Yes, but this is clearly crap. It’s like saying I can’t enjoy the taste of a chocolate chip cookie if I’ve never eaten shit.>always feel they have little bolt holes like 'incomprehensibility' or 'free will' they can run to, and so justify their continuing belief to themselves.See below.Spoon:>I know what it is to be the outsider, the target of the school bullies and the people who never stopped being school bullies even when they left school. It's made me stronger in some ways, probably weaker in others, but, more importantly, it's given me a method of understanding But what if you could have ALL of this _without_ suffering? Then what would be the benefit of having suffered?>so suffering does have worth, but only as long as suffering existsCorrect.Pawel:>My favorite response is that it basically means that god has given us intellect and reasoning power, which seems to work reasonably well in other areas of life, but then decided that he'd pull the rug out from under us when we were wrestling with some of the most important questions out there. So he's still an ass.And I’m still left with the dilemma: If I don’t understand god, why would I label evil actions good on his behalf? Why would I “trust” that allowing child rape is a demonstration of god’s goodness, if I say flat out “I can’t understand this god.” OK, “we” can’t understand it—but seriously—child rape? Doesn’t that _appear_ evil? If all we have to go on is what we see, what’s the logic behind saying “I’m going with _must be good_”?Topher:Correct: If god set up a system where free will is preferred over unnecessary suffering what he’s done is to say “I’d rather children be raped than impede a child rapist.”That’s flatly malevolent…or amoral AT BEST. I compared it to a situation where I walk into a room where a child is being raped, tell the rapist to please proceed, but after he’s done, I arrest him. That’s the “moral” character of such a god.

  21. 21
    Lukas

    "No problem of evil. Problem of you, dumbass!"That leaves the question, "why did god create us to be unable to understand his magnificent plan?"He must have wanted us to be unable to understand. In other words, god deliberately keeps us in the dark. Given that fact, does it make sense to punish us for not understanding? How can he rightfully punish us for something he did?We're back to a malevolent deity, then.While I am actually willing to accept the “all powerful within logical constraints,”I'm not. Theists are always happy to say that laws can't exist without a lawgiver, so who made the laws of logic?If god created logic, then he could have created it in some other way and he's responsible for all resulting effects.If he didn't, then who did?

  22. 22
    Ing

    This dilema is good as I love the non-binary answers to it.One of my favorite was from the comic Berserk where their theistic universe's solution to this is that God is nigh-allpowerful but malevolent. His soul purpose is in fact to create evil to plague the world and keep people miserable. Praying to him and worshiping him just makes him more powerful, and he and his daemons are insanely powerful…but seemingly the only way to affect anything is to actually not-pray and try to do something about it. There might be a subtle message there.

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