Beta testing a book: Chapter 5: An open letter to religious believers on God and evil

And now… the revised version of chapter 5 of the book. It contains my “open letter on God and evil,” which has been floating around the net for more than two years, longer than any other part of this book. But that’s not all it has. The full chapter consists of:

  • The open letter
  • Notes on responses to the letter
  • A detailed look at the problems with Plantinga’s free will defense

Okay. Phew! That’s five chapters, and I plan to have ten or so in the finished book, so we’re halfway there. The next several chapters may take longer to post, though, as I plan to be focusing a lot more on my Singularity Institute work in the next few weeks, and I’ve got a LOT more work to on the chapters on science and philosophy.

  • miller

    My initial reaction to Plantinga’s argument is that it predicts a world that would look very different from ours. Why aren’t people given the knowledge so that they can distinguish good and evil all the time? If it’s possible for human society, with all the free will flying around, to be as good as it is today, why hasn’t human society always been as good or better than that? How does sinning lead to hurricanes, when it would be much more sensible to have weather that is indifferent to human actions? Plantinga’s response seems like the kind of thing that could only be persuasive in academic philosophy land, where the merest possibility is the same as a strong possibility, and where people avoid talking about real-life examples as far as possible.

  • miller

    Oh, and my initial reaction to your letter is that it needs to be editted down a bit… but I suppose that’s not very helpful!

  • Robert

    Typo at “We many worry that the case casts doubt on our assumptions…”

    I also feel that it’s too long.

  • Robert

    Typo at “We many worry that the case casts doubt on our assumptions…”

    I also feel that it’s too long. Hope that helps.

  • Robert

    There is a typo at “We many worry that the case casts doubt on our assumptions…”

    I also feel that it’s too long.

  • Robert

    There is a typo at “We many worry that the case casts doubt on our assumptions…”

    Like the previous commenter, I also feel that it’s too long.

  • Robert

    There is a typo at “We many worry that the case casts doubt on our assumptions…”

    Like the previous commenter, I also feel that it’s too long.

    - Robert

  • smidoz

    Could you please link a version of the letter that contains the email to respond to, or just inbox me on twitter, soon, befoe I start thinking of rebutals, I would like to at least give my honest beliefs on the subject as they are what you’re asking for.

  • MNb

    Your letter hits the problem of evil right on its ugly head. Theological answers sound perfectly plausible as long as you keep them abstract. As soon as you try to apply them on a concrete case, like described by you, it becomes clear that they are awful. That may very well be an emotional reaction. So I’m not sure if it has universal value. But I know it’s good enough for me.

    “Plantinga’s real contribution .. was to argue that it’s possible that God, even being omnipotent, might not have been able to …”
    But according to christian doctrince god was. That area is called heaven.

    • hf

      Heaven actually produced the first sinner. We may conclude from this that eternity will yield an endless cycle of sinning, corruption-of-Paradise, and replacement by a New Earth.

      Were there another way, God would have found it the ‘first’ time.

  • Bob Jase

    I’m going to have to do more thinking before (if ever) I can offer any substantial critique.

    I will say that the simplistic arguement that ‘evil exists for the greater good’ being how an all good god could allow evil to exist can be completely overturned by positing ‘good exists for the greater evil’ therefore god is all evil – s a response which believers would never accept.

  • hf

    The following may involve too much inferential distance for the book, but I’d want to add that taking Plantinga’s argument at face value points towards deism and worse.

    The AI Box Experiment is a concrete fact suggesting that any communication would be too much for Plantinga’s God. Not only that, his Creator would need to maintain ignorance about a great deal of the environment He was creating in order to avoid the sort of influence that appears to determine our actions. At this point we could ask how anyone could know that such a God existed. Or we could note that the argument has somehow defined an omnipotent God as nearly impotent, which sounds to me like a reductio.

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  • Skepticali

    Hi Chris - 

    I’d like to see a shorter, more concise “letter” as well. May I suggest:

    1) Context. A brief personal background and reason for asking the question. 2 or 3 paragraphs.
    2) Example – leave as-is
    3) Question. 1 sentence.
    4) Conjectural Answers. 3 or 4 paragraphs. Cite some professional pros and cons that appeal to you. Don’t circle back.
    5) Close. 1 paragraph.

    I hope this comes across as constructive. I always struggle with being concise and compact. I just feel the layman on the street is going to throw a TLDR exception when they attempt to read the letter.

  • Darren

    I had always thought the problem of evil to be a robust argument against the existence of God, but I think I may just have solved it.


    Philosophical Zombies.

    To quote from your quote of Gutting’s “What Philosophers Know”,

    “An all-good being would have wanted to prevent the Holocaust, and an all-powerful being would have been able to do so; therefore, since the Holocaust did occur, there is no being that is both all-good and all-powerful – hence no God in the traditional sense.”

    The answer is that no Jews actually died in the Holocaust. What we thought were Jews were only homunculi, changelings, soulless, non-sentient imitations of humans. For an omnipotent and omniscient being, this would be a simple enough task – determine all the Jews that would have died in the holocaust, if they were to actually exist, then replace those beings with indistinguishable replica’s prior to the actual coming into being of the “original” humans… viola! All of the “Goods” of allowing the Holocaust to occur, but with no real harm done to any sentient beings.

    Five million Jews? Zombies. Kitty Genovese? Zombie. Anyone, anywhere, that anything truly bad happens to? Zombie.


    A quick disclosure, as a Simulationist I have given a fair bit of thought to the existence of evil in a simulated existence and whether or not it can be justified from the viewpoint of the programmers. My conclusion is that for such a simulation to be ethically permissible, most, if not all, of the observed suffering in this world actually takes place on p-zombies / bots. It is possible I have heard the p-zombie argument from other sources and mistakenly attributed it as my own thought.

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