Weisberger Evaluates the Arguments in the Loftus-Wood Debate

Reason to Disbelieve: A Critical Reflection on the Loftus-Wood Debate
By A. M. Weisberger.

Some prefatory remarks should be made about the following discussion of the Loftus-Wood Debate. First, both sides continually refer to god as "he." Although this may be a cultural throwback, my comments will use what I believe to be the more accurate term: 'it.' God, as theologically construed, would be an incorporeal, genderless being, having neither the attributes of female nor male, but some wholly other constitution that transcends these physically-based categories. Alternatively, we might construe god as a combination of all genders [here we can bracket the question of whether gender categories are binary or not], and interpret god's perfect nature as incorporating all gender configurations. In this case, god would also be an 'it' since the combination of all genders would render attributions such as 'he' inappropriate. If there is difficulty in conceiving of god as an 'it' we should be reminded that we do have examples of creatures classified in such a way, namely the mule. Mules, offspring of donkeys and horses, are considered to be genderless beings, and referred to as 'it' rather than as a 'he' or a 'she.'

Secondly, the term 'god' is frequently capitalized as if it is a proper name. Being a non-theist (and here I lay my cards on the table), I lack faith in the existence of such a being, let alone such a being with a proper name. As a result, I find that the capitalization of 'God' begs the question for the theistic hypothesis, and prefer the more neutral reference to deity: god.

Terms of the debate
Framing the terms of the debate is helpful for clarificatory purposes. I found Mr. Wood's remarks in his review of the debate to be helpful in this respect, as he touches on some issues which were not laid out in the opening remarks of the debate itself.

In his critical review of the Loftus-Wood Debate, Mr. Wood lays out 5 possible debate propositions, and focuses on the distinction between implausibility and improbability. He claims:

Whereas a person could hold that the existence of God is improbable yet still plausible, to say that the existence of God is implausible means that we shouldn’t even take God’s existence seriously.

However, he seems to have it backwards here: if a proposition were to be labeled implausible, it would be difficult to believe, or have some quality that provokes disbelief. On the other hand, if a proposition were to be labeled improbable, that would mean it was unlikely to be true or occur. If something is unlikely, it would therefore be difficult to believe, and would in fact have some quality which would provoke disbelief. Therefore, if a proposition were improbable, it would be implausible as well, contrary to what Mr. Wood claims. For why would anyone accept that something is plausible when it is unlikely to be true? On the other hand, it does make sense to say that although a proposition seems implausible, it is still probable -- in other worlds something may be true even though people do not believe it is. It is much more difficult to provide evidence for the claim that although something is recognized to most likely be false, it still makes sense.

In short, it seems in Mr. Wood's listing of the 'weakest to strongest' debate propositions, he should reverse the places of 'improbable' and 'implausible' so that:

(1) The extent of suffering in our world poses an interesting problem for theists, since God is said to be all-powerful and wholly good.
(2) The extent of suffering in our world is at least some evidence against theism.
(3) The extent of suffering in our world makes the existence of God improbable.
(4) The extent of suffering in our world makes the existence of God implausible.
(5) The extent of suffering in our world makes the existence of God impossible.


(1) The extent of suffering in our world poses an interesting problem for theists, since God is said to be all-powerful and wholly good.
(2) The extent of suffering in our world is at least some evidence against theism.
(3) The extent of suffering in our world makes the existence of God implausible.
(4) The extent of suffering in our world makes the existence of God improbable.
(5) The extent of suffering in our world makes the existence of God impossible.

That being said, the claim that the extent of suffering in the world serves to make the existence of god implausible seems to me to be too weak a position. I would opt for the stronger statement that the abundance or extent of suffering in the world serves to make the existence of god improbable. However, this debate focused on the weaker claim, namely that the extent of suffering in the world makes the existence of god difficult to believe. Implausibility refers to the belief-worthiness of a claim, while improbability references the chances that something is true or will occur. The belief in god might be argued to be plausible or implausible, whereas the debate over the existence of god should focus on issues which call probability and possibility into question.

Since this particular debate referenced the plausibility option, the focus is then on whether or not the god hypothesis is difficult to believe, given the constraints of so much suffering in the world. Perhaps framing the debate as: "Does the Extent of Suffering in Our World Make Belief in the Existence of God Implausible?” would clarify this ambiguity. [Again, it does seem, however, that the more interesting issue would focus on the stronger claim which could be rendered as: "Does the Extent of Suffering in Our World Make the Existence of God Improbable?”

Perhaps this ambiguity is responsible for Mr. Wood's understanding that the debate does not focus on the existence of god, but whether evil makes the existence of god implausible. It is unclear what this distinction really amounts to, for it is the existence of evil itself, in such great abundance and variety that abounds in the world, which is in need of justification in order for a deity so radically opposed to evil, and who admittedly has the ability to eradicate such evil, to be claimed to exist. In fact, it is the existence of wholly good, all-powerful god which the problem of evil calls into question.

Another issue to be addressed is the burden of proof which, Wood claims, lies with the skeptic. But his position here appears to rely on a misunderstanding. The entire terms of the debate rests on a response to the god hypothesis, initially offered by the theistic view. The problem of evil, which is the focus of the debate, could not even arise unless a particular theistic worldview were presented beforehand.

This worldview, as Dr. Hatab noted in his introductory comments to the debate, is peculiarly western: god is assumed to be all powerful, (inclusive of all knowing), as well as wholly good. If we round out what these terms mean in their most profound sense, we should conclude that we are referencing a deity which is as powerful as logical possibility would permit, and so perfectly good that this being would be opposed to evil in every respect. So this god, no matter what other attributes might be claimed of it, would be powerful enough to eradicate evil (provided it was not logically impossible to do so) and motivated to do so by absolute goodness, which we can suppose is the opposite of evil.

If we posit the existence of an omnipotent (and omniscient), and omnibenevolent deity, then one might wonder why there is such an abundance of suffering or evil in the world. It is only if we posit the existence of such a god that evil becomes a "problem." So we see that the questioning of the existence of god, or the plausibility of the god hypothesis, only occurs in response to the god hypothesis. As a result, the burden is on the proponent of the hypothesis or the presenter of the initial claim.

An analogy would be if someone were to claim that invisible, green gremlins power all microchips. Confronted with this hypothesis, one might ask how this is so, how it is known that these gremlins are green if they are invisible, and many similar questions. It is simply not convincing for the proponent of the invisible, green gremlin hypothesis to then claim, 'Well, since you question the gremlins' greenness, it is up to you to prove that they are not green!' This does little to persuade anyone of the viability or plausibility of the gremlin hypothesis. Similarly, anyone making claims about the existence of extraordinary phenomena, such as invisible, green gremlins, the burden of proof lies with the claimant. And the claim about the existence of a wholly good, all powerful being, in the face of such abundant and excruciating suffering in the world, appears to be an extraordinary claim! It is the proposer of the god hypothesis, no matter what the flavor (classical or personalist), who must bear the burden of making sense of the claim that an all good, all powerful being -- one who is powerful enough to eradicate at least some of the tremendous suffering that exists, and one who is opposed to such suffering by its very essence -- exists.

The Arguments
Mr. Loftus presents a summary list of evils in the world, from mental torture to animal suffering to the evils of slavery. Reflecting on these leads to the following questions:

• Why did god create any of this at all?
• If god had to create, why not just create a heavenly world with perfect existences (no evil)?
• If there was an initial heavenly world, but there was rebellion, then how can we explain how an angel would rebel when in the presence of an all-powerful, wholly good being?

Free will is frequently offered as an explanation, complete or partial, for numerous instances of suffering, mostly those having to do with moral choice. But the issue of free will provokes another set of questions. One of which is:

• Did god not know how free will would be abused?

Loftus reminds us that, If the answer is affirmative, then god is blameworthy for the subsequent suffering. If the theist maintains that free will is a ‘gift,’ then the giver of a gift, for which it is foreknown will be used to cause harm, is guilty of that harm. For example, a mother who gives a toddler a razor blade to play with is responsible for the resulting damage.

For Loftus, there are a number of moral concerns which arise from a posited relationship between an all-powerful god and creation. Some of these are:

1) We should not be permitted to create suffering by abusing free will (we should not be constructed so as to easily choose evil)
2) We should not be placed in a dangerous environment (we should not be subject to suffering from natural disasters)

• To claim there is a compensatory greater good for our troubles is problematic as a justifier. Such claims do not justify our torture of others, even if we were to reward them afterward. And, the purported greater good is not revealed.
• Creatures should not be subject to the horrors of predation, and pain is not necessary as a warning mechanism. God should not have created animals, if their only purpose was to suffer pointlessly. (There is no moral lesson animals are meant to learn.)
• If physical laws are responsible for suffering, then why could the laws be altered so as not to do so?

3) We should not be created as to be so physically vulnerable (why can’t our injuries be more easily healed?) Our configuration could have been different so as to minimize suffering, especially in light of god’s omniscience.

The resulting conclusion from Loftus’ argument is that this just cannot be the best of all possible worlds – an omniscient being should have been able to do better.


In his response to these concerns, Mr. Wood begins by stating that it is not the existence of god which is at issue, but whether the abundance of pain and suffering does damage to the god hypothesis. His claim is that the burden of proof lies with the atheist rather than the theist.

Wood lays out two options here. Either:

1) There is a reason for suffering
2) There is no reason for suffering

Wood argues that on intellectual grounds, but perhaps not emotional, there is a reason for suffering. He uses the example of the plot in the film Sophie’s choice. Sophie, while standing in line to the gas chambers with her two small children, must select one child over another to save -- under duress from a Nazi. If she fails to select one, all three will die. If she plays the Nazi’s cruel game, two of them live. She chooses her son and sends off her daughter to die. Wood claims that this was an acceptable intellectual choice, though emotionally devastating. In the film, Sophie eventually commits suicide.

However, is such a choice justified on intellectual moral grounds? Is it the case that we have some definitive framework for determining a morally correct choice here? And if so, is there obvious evidence for adopting an act utilitarianism over a rule utilitarian or even deontological approach -- which might claim that since all human lives are infinitely (or even equally valuable) one cannot then choose between them? To make this claim, and in light of the background of Nazi insanity, implies that there was a logically coherent and correct response to the Nazi proposition of choosing to save one of your children and condemn the other to death. This is not a rational proposition, and there is no rationally based correct response to such horror. There is not even a moral framework, let alone a meaningful language external to the incoherence of the Holocaust, to judge the actions of the film’s protagonist.

Undeterred, Wood argues that the concept of god’s goodness is not a claim about personal behavior, but about essential features. Despite a misplaced reference to Thomas Aquinas’ pronouncement that ‘god is good’ (since Aquinas was loathe to apply moral predicates in any meaningful sense to god) this concept is abandoned.

The claim that Wood wants to emphasize is that there are coherent reasons for why a god would permit the existence of suffering in the world. Wood briefly mentions 3 possible theodicies, and only discusses the last in any detail:

1) Free will theodicy:

• A world with free will is better than one without
• True freedom entails the choice to choose evil

Of course, both of these claims are highly questionable. Why is it the case that a world with free will is better than a world without? How is the value of free will quantified so as to make such a claim? What measurements would be used to determine that free will is so intrinsically valuable that without it our lives would somehow be diminished? Considering that god itself does not have free will, namely the ability to even choose to do evil since god is perfectly good, it does not seem that it is really such a boon to existence.

And, does true freedom really entail the choice to choose evil? If we had the choice between very good, good, and uneventful actions, would that not be a real choice? Is it not a real choice if I am only choosing between oatmeal and Frosted Flakes for breakfast? Could not free will also refer to the ability to choose to act, and not necessarily to commit the act? (As in choosing to create a plan to do evil, but not have the ability to carry out the plan?) If so, then is not having the ability to fly, no matter how hard we flap our arms, a limitation on free choice? In other words, is ‘true freedom’ the same as absolute freedom? If so, then we do not have that now.

2) Wizard of Oz theodicy

• The world is a place of wonder, and problems make us realize there is hope

I am not sure what to make of this claim. It is not really a theodicy at all since it does not offer any explanatory power regarding the existence of suffering. Is the existence of hope somehow the justifier for suffering? Was it just fine to torture people in concentration camps so long as they had hope of liberation? And is the take home message, for concentration camp survivors and others who were enslaved, that the world is a wondrous place? It seems to me that if god is relying on suffering to create a sense of wonder in humans, then god is inept, and really not the sharpest tool in the shed. A miracle now and then would seem to have a better chance of assuring the resulting sense of wonder in the face of the world than torture!

3) Soul-building theodicy

• Suffering builds character, god is a divine thermostat

Although this theodicy has a long history, Wood makes no reference to any of the literature on the topic. Instead, Wood constructs a very odd argument:

1) If god exists, we would not be permitted to feel pain (since it interferes with our happiness)
2) We experience pain
3) Therefore, god does not exist

But, Wood notes, what if premise one were not true? What if the purpose of existence were not to maximize happiness? Then the argument against soul-building fails.

Of course, the reasonable rejoinder is that even if premise one were false, and suffering serves some good purpose, there still does not need to be the abundance of suffering that exists in the world. And it is the great abundance of suffering, or gratuitous evil, which calls into question the existence of a wholly good, all-powerful deity.

Anticipating such a response, Wood argues that the world is not such a bad place as the non-theist makes it out to be. The non-theist makes it out that the world is just one giant cesspool of suffering, without focusing on the good that exists. The atheist, according to Wood, has ‘tunnel vision.’

This view, that the world is a happy place overall, is perfectly consistent with being a privileged, well fed, insulated person who has had the good fortune to be born into a first world country and who has all their immediate survival needs met. The facts speak quite differently, especially if one were to take a global perspective.

Just to take one example: 18,000 children a day die of starvation. 18,000 children: innocent people who have never done anything to deserve such a horrible death. These are children who have had the misfortune of being born into a country in which there are not enough resources to feed them – either due to natural occurrences such as drought, or due to the misuse of freewill by political leaders aiming to torture their own people and/or accrue wealth to satisfy their own desires. To take one example, the death rate for starvation in North Korea is monumentally higher than that of South Korea. Here, being born in one geographical location considerably impacts on quality of life and life expectancy. According to James Morris, outgoing director of the UN World Food Program:

"The average 7-year-old North Korean boy is eight inches shorter, 20 pounds lighter and has a 10-year-shorter life expectancy than his 7-year-old counterpart in South Korea. And to have this much disparity by age 7 — it's a terrible thing."1

Moreover, death by starvation is not even a remotely pleasant experience. And, having to watch one’s own children die of starvation adds an additional layer of agony, one which is incomprehensible to the majority of us living in the privileged environment of the US.

So, the attribution of ‘tunnel vision’ by Wood in this case seems to be self-referential. What possible justification could there be for subjecting 18,000 children per day to death by starvation? And notice, this number does not include adults into the equation. Estimates are that 40,000 people per day die of starvation worldwide.

The point Wood wants to make is that the claim about the abundance of evil outweighing the good needs substantiation in order for the argument from evil to succeed. But this is a factual issue that must rely on some type of quantification, both in the amount and quality of suffering versus incidents of pleasure in the world. And who is willing to make the case that the joy of an American child receiving a Playstation 3 for Christmas outweighs the excruciating pain a North Korean child experiences while suffering from starvation?

The important issue is that the suffering of the North Korean child is unnecessary and gratuitous. If one North Korean child could be prevented from starvation without that occurrence impacting any of god’s ‘plans’ in some negative fashion, then that suffering is gratuitous. If it is reasonable to think that the entire course of the universe is not dependent upon the suffering of one North Korean child, then not all suffering is necessary. If not all suffering is necessary, then there is no reason for some suffering, and it is gratuitous. If there is gratuitous suffering in the world, then we can imagine a better world than this, one in which there is at the very least, no gratuitous suffering.

So, to clarify:

1) If an instance of suffering could be prevented without compromising a greater good, that suffering is unnecessary for that greater good
2) If an instance of suffering is unnecessary, then there is gratuitous suffering in the world
3) If there is gratuitous suffering in this world, then we can imagine a better world than this

Contrary to what Wood believes -- that the burden is on the atheist to show how the suffering outweighs the happiness, the burden is on the theist to show why this particular worldly configuration, one in which gratuitous suffering seems to exist, is the best of all possible worlds.

Because if this is not the best god could have created, even with the 18,000 children a day dying of starvation, then there is a problem.

4) If god could have done better but chose not to, god is not wholly good
5) If god wanted to do better than this but could not, then god is not all powerful
Assenting to either one of these propositions supports the conclusion that the argument from evil offers.

It is the original claim that is what is really at issue – it is the theist who makes the initial claim that god is wholly good and all powerful. And a wholly good being would be opposed to suffering in such a way as to desire to eradicate it. An all-powerful being would have the ability to do so. The stubborn fact of suffering in the world, and especially apparently gratuitous suffering, is what calls the theist’s claim into question.

Ignoring the entire issue of god’s allege omnipotence, and the ability to eradicate suffering in the world, leads to a consideration of the other primary attribute called into question by the argument from evil: god’s perfect goodness. Wood finds difficulty with the concept that there are moral laws that god must follow. In other words, god may be above the moral law, in other worlds, god is the source of moral law.

He presents an argument:

1) If god does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist
2) Objective moral values do exist
3) Therefore, god exists

Wood comments that the logic is valid. This may be so, but this is far from a sound argument. As first year logic students are taught, an argument’s validity says nothing about truth, it is merely a statement about the relationship between the premises and the conclusion. Valid arguments are not necessarily sound.

Wood notes that the second premise might be called into question in an effort to defeat the conclusion. But not only might the second premise be challenged, namely, whether there are such things as objective moral values existing independently of moral creatures in a vacuum, but the first premise is itself highly questionable. What, exactly, is the connection between god and morality? It seems that Wood is making the assumption that there is such a connection, an assumption that would beg the question in favor of his position.

If we hearken back to Socrates’ question in the Euthryphro, the difficulty is immediately obvious. In Socrates’ version the question is framed in the following terms: ‘Do the gods love what is holy, or is what is holy whatever the gods love?’ In terms relevant to this debate, the question could be framed as: ‘Is what is ‘objectively morally valid’ whatever god determines it to be, or is god itself subject to moral laws?’

In the first interpretation, god is the source of objective moral values. Therefore, whatever god tells one to do must be the right thing to do. So, if god spoke to you and told you to murder your infant daughter while she slept, than that would be morally the correct thing to do. If god had really commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, without the ‘just kidding’ part at the last minute, then according to the first interpretation [what is ‘objectively morally valid’ is whatever god determines it to be], human sacrifice would be morally correct. Note, this is the view that the first premise of the argument assumes. We should also note that the concept here of ‘objectively morally valid’ really means ‘subject to god’s whim at the moment’ – not very objective at all really.

If, on the other hand, we reason that there are actions which are right or wrong, independent of what god decides at the moment, than god itself must be subject to moral laws. If so, then the existence of ‘objective moral laws’ has no bearing on the existence of god, since god itself is subject to these laws. If god is subject to these laws, there is a complication with imagining that god is also the source of these laws.

After parsing out the first premise of the argument Wood offers, we can see that it is incoherent. If God is the source of moral law, it is hardly ‘objectively valid.’ On the other hand, if there is such a thing as an objective moral law, then it would not be dependent upon the existence of god. In fact, the theist is better off arguing that there is no such thing as an objective moral law (denying premise #2) in its most absolute sense, since that claim would then negate the concept of god as the creator of everything.

In sum, either premise 1 is false (that morality is dependent upon god) or premise 2 is false (that morality is independent of god). Objective moral values cannot be both dependent upon god (in which case they would be subjective to god) and truly objective (independent of a subjective viewpoint) at one and the same time. Such an argument, as Wood constructs, falls under its own weight, without even so much as a whisper from the atheist.

Perhaps it might be better to construe moral values as inter-subjectively determined by moral creatures who are attempting to make the world a better place than they found it. The issue of why we find so much suffering in the world, suffering that we moral creatures should be attempting to eradicate, still remains unanswerable.

Any coherent attempt on the theist’s part to offer an explanation will need to go beyond the hollow repetition that god has reasons for everything. Ultimately, the belief in such a deity in the face of the horrendous suffering that currently exists, coupled with the reliance on the hope that it will all one day make sense, requires a leap of faith beyond the boundaries of rationality.

1 Departing U.N. Food Chief Reflects on World Hunger Michele Keleman, National Public Radio:


Anonymous said...

Once again I'd like to thank Andrea for her work in this whole area. For those who don't know, besides writing her excellent book called Suffering Belief , she also wrote the chapter on the problem of evil for The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin.

Anonymous said...

In reading this again I noticed that Dr. Weisberger totally skipped Mr. Wood's mentioning of the arguments for the existence of "God," including the design argument. The reason why has already noted by me: 1) Mr. Wood never argued for them, he just mentioned them, so there was nothing to respond to; and 2)The debate was not whether Mr. Wood's "God" existed so much as how he can explain the presence of intense suffering if such a "God" does exist. I had already told Mr. Wood that in practically none of the literature that I see do Christian scholars counter the problem of evil by arguing for the existence of "God." I had already hypothetically granted that his God exists. Given the existence of Mr. Wood's "God," can he explain the presence of intense evil? And my answer is a resounding "NO!"

Lok said...

Only this can be said:

That was long, but it was totally worth the time.

David Wood said...

Busy at the moment. I can probably read it this weekend. Anticipating the content based on the author, I'll probably write a response, too.

In the meantime, why don't we post the entire debate on YouTube? That way, we can both put it on our blogs, and everyone can watch it and see what they think.

Anonymous said...

That's a great idea David. That's fine with me.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Weisberger makes an interesting point, but doesn't take it far enough when she states "god itself does not have free will, namely the ability to even choose to do evil since god is perfectly good."
In fact, an omniscient god, if we assume that this being has a 'plan for the Universe' whether we define the being as 'good' or whether we define 'forwarding this plan' as good, or even if we leave the question of 'good' unresolved, can have no free will.

Free will involves the making of choices at 'decision points.' But at ANY decision point, god, if omniscient, knows the results of the possible choices, and knows which choice will best advance its plan. How is it possible to argue that it is 'free' to choose anything but that?

A minor corollary to this is that the concept of this god 'answering prayers' is an absurdity and the act of praying (prayers of petition, that is) is the most blasphemous arrogance possible. ("C'mon, God, I know you have a plan for the Universe, but this is ME speaking, surely you'll tweak that a little to do ME a favor.)

Hacksaw Duck said...

Do you lower-case the name of every being whose existence is in question? How about santa claus, the wizard of oz and hercules?