Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Big Hominid versus William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig is a philosopher and theologian with an evangelical Christian background. Many in academic circles know him as one of the foremost apologists for the Christian worldview. In a recent blog post, Dr. Vallicella linked to some YouTube videos of Craig giving a presentation of some sort. This might have been in the context of an atheism/theism debate.

In the comments section of Dr. V's blog, I took issue with Craig on a couple points. My initial comment received two replies, and I have just written a reply to those comments. I reproduce the relevant part of the comment thread here.

Kevin's comment:

WL Craig says: "The purpose of life is not human happiness, as such, but rather knowing God and eternal life."

Is Craig saying that knowing God is unconnected with human happiness? I should think that most theists would argue that knowing God is the ultimate happiness (or bliss, or whatever the correct word is). If that's the case, then why can't God create beings that enjoy full knowledge of him without having to send his poor creatures through the existential wringer?

I also have trouble with Craig's "hidden harmony" argument-- the idea that a greater, perhaps unknowable, divine purpose can somehow make human suffering meaningful. My gut reaction to this has always been, "Look a concentration camp survivor in the eyes and say that to her with a straight face: your suffering and your family's suffering were part of a larger plan." How many people seriously believe such a twisted notion?

If the hidden harmony argument is true (and based on Craig's overview of the epistemological difficulties inherent in trying to assess whether suffering has a point, it seems only God can truly know), then I'd rather not have anything to do with such a God.


Dr. V's reply:


Craig does not mean that human happiness is unconnected with knowledge of God. Ultimately, human happiness consists in the knowledge of God. Why the existential wringer? The trad. answer would be in terms of free will, Original Sin, etc.

I don't have the time to discuss this in detail, but I think what it comes down to is that your intuition that there cannot be a providential plan given the fact of evil trumps every other consideration.

Timothy's reply:


You wrote:

"Look a concentration camp survivor in the eyes and say that to her with a straight face: your suffering and your family's suffering were part of a larger plan."

Christians, including concentration camp survivors, take comfort in that very sentiment (e.g. Corrie Ten Boom).

If the hidden harmony argument is true (and based on Craig's overview of the epistemological difficulties inherent in trying to assess whether suffering has a point, it seems only God can truly know), then I'd rather not have anything to do with such a God.

If there is a God, then the hidden harmony argument or something like it must be true. And if there is a God, then by definition you can't help but have everything to do with him one way or another.

I wrote in response:


re: camp survivors taking comfort in hidden harmony

That's a good point, and it's one I've encountered before. I actually don't mind so much that the sufferer should try to comfort him- or herself with such a thought, but it seems perverse for another person to suggest it to them.

And just as there's anecdotal evidence for sufferers who accept the hidden harmony argument, there's anecdotal evidence for sufferers who don't. Europe's current status as "post-Christian" is partly due to the harrowing effects of World War II. Post-WW2 French existentialism became popular in part because it saw the cosmos as fundamentally absurd (NB: I don't share that view), with people not so much discovering meaning as building it through their choices.

If there is a divine plan of some sort, this seems hard to reconcile with human freedom. If everything we do somehow fits into that plan-- and because it's a plan, I assume there is supposed to be a specific outcome-- I have to wonder just how free any of us really is.

I think I'll go and write something about this on my blog. But yes, Dr. V, at a visceral level, I find the idea that something as massive as Stalin's purges or the Holocaust might be part of a divine plan utterly repulsive.

If God, like human beings, created a plan with a certain objective, but allowed our freedom and the waywardness of Heisenbergian matter to diverge from that plan... that would go a long way toward alleviating my disgust. But if everything is ultimately Part of the Plan-- no. No.


I'm sure there will be more to this.

Craig argues, in the linked videos, that atheists cannot justifiably claim that pointless suffering exists. His argument actually makes sense, for it comes down to the "horizoned" (i.e., limited) nature of human knowledge and experience. God or no God, the universe is an unimaginably huge place, so how can we possibly make such sweeping claims (e.g., "some suffering is pointless") without having grasped even a fraction of the Big Picture? I'm willing to concede this to Craig.

The problem with Craig's argument, though, is that it's not exactly a ringing endorsement of the traditional Christian conviction that there is a divine plan of some sort. What Craig's argument comes down to is a claim of epistemic parity-- "You can't know, and I can't know, either."

This puts both the believer and the nonbeliever in the same boat, and the Christian is then left with "I have faith" as his or her only justification for believing that all suffering has a point. From the modern standpoint, the claim "I have faith" becomes problematic when viewed in the larger arena of rival religious traditions, many of which make contradictory truth claims when you start looking at the specifics of their belief structures, and which also cite "faith" as the impetus behind their claims. So... who's right?

I have for years been horrified by the idea that human evil on a grand scale can all be considered part of a larger plan. It's one thing for a parent to punish a child and to say, "You'll understand why this is happening when you're older and wiser." It's quite another thing to claim "Divine plan!" when faced with an evil like black slavery, or the slaughter of Tutsis by Hutus, or the ravages of World War II. The difference between these two examples is, to my mind, not a difference of degree, but of kind. I haven't put my finger on why that's true; perhaps that will be fodder for another post.



Malcolm Pollack said...


As I argued in my recent post about the poor girl in the pool, the free-will loophole is slammed shut by the fact that there is so much gratuitous suffering that has nothing whatsoever to do with human actions. If a two-year-old with agonizing bone cancer is part of a Divine Plan, I want no part of it.

Anonymous said...

I think the book of Job for both the Jews and Christians is supposed to offer an answer to this question even if it is not an answer that satisfies us. I'm not sure I get the answer, but I think part of it would by that "when you are older and wiser, you'll understand this punishment" is not the right way to view it -- with the correct answer being, "I'm God. You'll never get me. So have faith that I know what I'm doing." Again, this probably isn't very satisfying for many...

I see no way around the idea of something like a "plan" or better an "idea" of the course of suffering --- if you believe in one all powerful god who created everything + is wholly good.

If you were a pagan, you could say suffering can stem in part or whole from the interaction of the gods themselves. Or, if you believe a one true god can make mistakes. Or, if you believe a one true god can be immoral. Or, if you believe god doesn't know everything... Then you can scoot away from the idea that suffering is part of a one true god's creation.

But, if you believe in a one true all powerful all knowing god who is wholly good, then he must have always known that the Holocaust was going to happen or that baby Jane was going to die of bone cancer at age 5.

Maybe that shakes and destroys faith in some. It did much of Europe after the horrors of World War I.

But, even with faith not destroyed, when Job spoke out to God demanding to know why he would turn him over to the devil to have his way with him even though Job was considered by that same God to be wholly just in his actions, God simply said, basically, "Deal with it. I'm God, and you'll never get me. Trust me or don't..."

And given the horrors of the world, many have lost that trust. Some keep it....

Anonymous said...

An interesting tid bit that fits in this discussion as well: Job wasn't a Jew - wasn't a member of the chosen people - but was nonetheless deemed righteous in his ways by God himself......

He was also challenged by friends who claimed he must have done something to deserve the ill that befell him.

But, he never lost faith, never lost faith in God or himself, even if he wasn't thrilled about what God had let happen to him, which as the book goes was the whole point in the test to begin with, and it was his accusers who gained God's displeasure - or so the story goes...

Malcolm Pollack said...

Well, there is a key difference between standing directly before the coruscating presence of God Himself, in such a way as to leave no shred of doubt whatsoever as to His existence, and being told "I know what I'm doing, so trust Me", and reading the whole story as a dubious anecdote in a collection of Iron Age folklore.

If the story is true, one can hardly fault Job for being daunted. But until God puts on a similarly convincing demonstration for our own benefit, I'll have none of it, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Then we have shifted the conversation from whether a just god can have produced suffering in mankind to whether there is a god at all...

There is a difference between saying you (generic you) want no part in a god who causes human suffering as some part of an unknowable plan and saying you want no part in a god altogether.

Anonymous said...

One thing that might be useful for us to keep in mind in the discussion is that --- whether is an all powerful all knowing god or not --- human suffering is a given. Erasing god or penciling him in does not change that.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the chain of comments - you can post them all together if you like...

But I just thought this one up...

"If the story is true, one can hardly fault Job for being daunted. But until God puts on a similarly convincing demonstration for our own benefit"

Iron Age folk lore or not, in the text, if I remember correctly, Job did not have his direct speech with God until the end of the story - which was the whole point of the book:

He was blasted with the kind of woes that would break any average man's spirits, but unlike what the devil predicted, Job did not lose faith and curse God or say there was no God.

It wasn't until the end, again if I am remembering correctly, that God spoke out on Job's behalf against his accusers and also faced Job's question about "why me" only to answer, "I'm God. You wouldn't get it even if I tried to explain it to you."...