God, Evil, and Science: My Response to Richard Carrier

written by Dr. Brian Huffling

Dr. Brian Huffling

Dr. Brian Huffling’s research interests include: Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, and general issues in Apologetics and Biblical studies. See his personal blog here.

When I read Richard Carrier’s response to my interactions with Michael Shermer in Skeptic magazine, I could not believe how badly he misunderstood me and misrepresented me (seemingly on purpose at times). 

In February of 2019 I debated Michael Shermer on the issue of God’s existence and the problem of evil. One of my points was that the question of God’s existence is one for philosophy, not natural science. Natural science studies nature. God is supernatural(that is, a being that transcends nature). As such, natural science cannot on its own attain knowledge of the supernatural. (This is one reason why I argue that philosophical arguments are stronger than “scientific” ones for God’s existence.”) This debate led to a printed interaction between Michael and me in Skeptic magazine (Vol 24 No. 2 2019).

It is to this magazine article that Richard Carrier writes against. He makes several “critiques” that I will respond to.

God and Probability

 Carrier argues that my view of God lacks probability. He states:

“What we can learn the most from is how Huffling attempts to defend his god in response to [Shermer’s article] (Skeptic 24.2: 49-54). But both lack the same feature: a sound use of the logic of probability to illustrate their points. Such would expose the errors of Huffling and shore up the points of Shermer. Both could thus benefit from knowing the relevance and power of one simple truth: prior odds times relative likelihood equals final odds. In other words, Bayes’ Theorem.”  

Carrier further states:

“The prior odds are of course also a problem for theism, empirically and analytically: background evidence, having only ever found physical explanations for everything, does not make things like gods at all a probable explanation of anything; and the probability-space occupied by God, indeed especially a hyper-specific one like the Christian God, must necessarily be extremely small—as many far simpler things, as well as a vast range of alternatives, share most of the rest of that space in the absence of specific evidence otherwise.”

This kind of thinking renders God a question of mathematics. However, throughout history, the topic of God’s existence has been seen as a philosophical debate. Philosophers have generally argued from the nature of the world (the effect) to the existence of God (the cause). By “nature of the world” I don’t mean merely observable data, but the philosophy of nature. Philosophy of nature deals with issues such as the contingency of things, the nature of change (not how a thing changes on a molecular level but what the nature of change is in itself), and various issues like a thing’s composition of act and potency, matter and form, etc. Such are inherently philosophical and go back to the ancient Greeks. This is something that natural science can’t do since making moves from the natural world to the supernatural is by definition not in the domain of natural science. Further, science tells us about things in terms of their observable characteristics, not their philosophical nature.

Not only are there problems in quantifying things like background knowledge for Bayes’ Theorem, this kind of thinking avoids the philosophical issues germane to the question. If the universe is contingent, then it cannot account for itself. It would need a cause that is itself not contingent (since a regress of continent causes is impossible). Thus, philosophers on this topic have not historically asked, “What is the probability that this universe needs a cause like a theistic God,” but rather, “Does the nature of the universe require a cause that is transcendent?”

In the days of modern philosophy, thinkers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant rejected traditional metaphysics. Then came the rise of analytic philosophy, which has sought to reduce philosophy to mathematics and logic in an attempt to rid itself of “meaningless debates.” However, I would agree with other traditional philosophers that we cannot simply reduce reality to mathematical quantity and probability. If it is the case that the universe is contingent, then (barring an infinite regress, which is impossible), there must be a non-contingent cause. This has nothing to do with probability and everything to do with metaphysical necessity.

The Nature of Science and Evidence

Carrier takes great exception to my characterization of “science and evidence.” He states:

“Huffling starts with contradictory claims about science. At one point admitting science can study God though [sic] his effects, but then claiming instead that science can’t study God through his effects, asserting ‘we still couldn’t measure God as the cause’ of anything in the world.”

It would be nice if he would be specific as to what my claims were. Since he is not, I have to figure out what he says I said. To be clear, I never said that “science can study God through his effects.” I do say, “But if science studies only the natural world, then natural science by definition will not tell us about the existence of God (unless we posit God as material or part of the universe, which I am not doing). If God is immaterial, then he will not fall under the purview of natural science” (50).

On the next page, I state: “So while empirical science studies his effects directly, philosophy studies God from his effects.” No contradiction so far since I am maintaining that while empirical science cannot move beyond the physical world to a transcendent cause, philosophy can. Thus, I am comparing the roles of natural science and philosophy.

What Carrier seems to view as a contradiction is something I said about miracles. In responding to Shermer’s argument that if God existed then we should see him answering prayers and doing miracles, I said, “However, I would submit that even if God did reach in and answer prayer in some miraculous sense, we still couldn’t measure God as the cause of such a miracle. The effect could be measured, but God as the cause of the effect could never be measured, even in principle” (52).

But that is not what Carrier said I said. He quoted me as saying that “we still couldn’t measure God as the cause” of anything in the world. First, he didn’t even quote me right. Second, he took me out of context. I did not say that we couldn’t measure God as the cause of anything in the world. What I said, and is clear from the context, is that God is not a thing to be measured, period. Thus, even if a miracle happened, then while we could study the effects of it (the healed person), we could not use empirical science to study God, or even say with certainty that God did it. This is a pretty bad misrepresentation.

I claim that “If science is indeed a study of the natural world by means of the senses, then by definition it is locked into studying the physical universe but not anything that is not part of the physical universe” (50). Carrier claims this is “entirely false.” He argues,

“Science can study anything that affects or has ever affected the physical universe. Including anything and everything supernatural there might happen to be (as I demonstrated long ago in Defining the Supernatural). As with atoms, photons, gravity, magnetic fields, the Big Bang, science routinely studies things we cannot see by studying their effects.”

Interestingly I said something similar in the article (regarding things in the universe that can’t be seen, such as atoms): “Science is certainly an empirical investigation (even if not all of what it studies can be visually perceptible, like atoms, virtual particles, and the like)” (50). All of the examples Carrier gave are physical in nature. Thus, they are not counter-examples of my point.

However, Carrier wants to deny that natural science is locked into studying the natural world. He argues that natural science can in some way measure God (a point Shermer denied in our debate) if God exists and affects the universe. I agree with Carrier that “it is logically impossible that God has no effects on the universe.” As creator and sustainer of the universe, he is the cause and thus has effected (i.e. cause the universe to be) the universe. Carrier adds:

“Worse, it would be logically contradictory to claim science cannot study the complete inaction of God. That God does not act is a scientific observation. It has consequences. It tells us something about God—should there be one. Indeed it can even tell us something about whether there is one. Inaction is an observation. An observation of the senses. That’s evidence. Conclusions follow. What is the probability of a good God being a total do-nothing no show—not even having created or arranged anything about the design or contents of the universe, nor ever once observably acting in aid of justice or compassion? Absurdly low. Therefore, so is the probability of there being a good God absurdly low. Q.E.D.”

If God as an immaterial being exists, he simply cannot be measured or studied via the natural sciences. Again, Shermer agreed with me on this point. Further, it is not clear what Carrier means by “inaction.” It seems that Carrier thinks that God should act in the way that Carrier thinks he should act . . . an assumption I’ve been pointing out that atheists hold to all along. If God does not do what they think he should, then he doesn’t exist. I also think it is wrong to say we can observe inaction. We observe things and their effects. But it is not possible to observe inaction. We can observe a thing that is inactive, but not inaction as if it is a thing in itself. It is also important to note that classical theists hold that not only is God active, he is Pure Act and is continually keeping things in existence. Of course, Carrier won’t assent to this, but his view is simply too restrictive and question-begging.

Later, Carrier claims: “Huffling wants to have it both ways, of course, claiming we do have evidence while claiming science can never verify any of that evidence or what causes he proposes for it. This is irrational. If it cannot be verified by any reliable process, the conclusion you are claiming cannot be thus verified either. There is no path to knowledge here. Not of God. Not of anything. You may as well claim everything you believe on no evidence is a real miracle was caused by sorcery, faeries, aliens, or naturally human ‘psychic powers.’”

It is astonishing that Carrier seems to be completely ignorant of the entire field of philosophy and philosophy of religion as separate disciplines from natural science. He is essentially claiming that knowledge only comes via natural science, a fallacy known as scientism. Natural science is not the only discipline that offers evidence. Further, as a historical point, philosophy has been the almost universal method for arguing for God. From Plato to the modern era, philosophy, not natural science has been the discipline thinkers have used to argue for or against God. (Intelligent design arguments must use notions of philosophy and thus are not strictly arguments from natural science, although they are more based on empirical science than strictly philosophical proofs. But since they argue for a supernatural being, they are exiting the realm of purely natural studies.) Of course, natural science has a certain amount to offer in telling us that the universe is an effect; however, natural science has never been able to transcend the natural order (or it wouldn’t be natural science).

Carrier’s claim that my view is irrational is puzzling, to say the least. It is simply how such thinkers as Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Leibniz, etc. have done it for over a millennium. It is simply ridiculous to call all of their efforts “irrational.” I will point out one last tidbit here: Carrier is doing philosophy, namely the philosophy of science (the nature of science). However, he has not, and cannot, empirically verify his philosophical claims regarding the nature of science. Philosophical claims can be informed by but not decided with natural science.

Carrier continues: “Huffling is presenting us with a logically contradictory thesis: that a God exists who does intervene in the world (performing miracles, communicating with people, designing the natural world), that this God is a good person, and that this God does nothing a similarly empowered good person would do. Those three properties cannot logically co-exist.”

I never made the last two points. In fact, I have been denying them. I have never said that “God is a good person.” Such would embrace what has come to be called theistic personalism. This view teaches that God is a person much like humans and acts much like humans. William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, and Alvin Plantinga are examples of such a view. I have tried to argue in my various writings and talks that I wholeheartedly reject such a view. Following Aquinas, I argue that God is not “a person.” When classical theists say God is a person, we mean that analogically, not univocally. In other words, we don’t mean that God is a person like we are. Further, Trinitarians can’t hold that God is “a person.” Rather, he is a simple, unified essence. We talk about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being persons, but usually it is not meant that they are persons in the same way we are with three centers of consciousness, will, etc. (However, some do argue that. Craig is an example.)

Further, I have been denying that God is good in the same way humans are. While I affirm that God is metaphysically good, I deny that he is morally good, which is what Carrier seems to mean here. In fact, he makes no distinctions about the nature of good whatsoever.

The third point is baffling to me as it has been the focus of my interaction with Shermer, viz., that “God does nothing a similarly empowered good person would do” (emphasis added). Similarly empowered? Either I have been an abysmal communicator or Carrier isn’t trying to understand (or both). There is nothing similar to God and God does not act like us. I am not going to rehash everything I have said on this point here.

For what it’s worth, I do not see anything incoherent about these three points: they just are another way of formulating the problem of evil. However, since I reject the last two of his three points, I don’t care if they are incoherent.

Defining Good Out of Existence

Carrier next attacks my view and use of the word ‘good’. He writes:

“Huffling tries to define ‘good’ out of any empirical existence so as to avoid the consequences of his imagined God never doing any. To this end he declares ‘when we call something good we are referring to something beyond its physical properties,’ and therefore we cannot discern empirically where it does or does not exist. This is false. ‘Good’ can only ever be defined in terms of effects—which are observable. If I am a good person, that entails empirically observable facts about me—about how I think and act. This is testable and measurable. Even by science. Ditto God.”

 Carrier has misrepresented me once again. Here I was talking about behavior and values. Let me put this quote in context. I said:

“This is not to say that scientists can’t tell us that an x is a good or bad member of its species, or whatever it is. But saying that something is behaviorally good, bad, or evil is not merely a scientific notion. These terms are about the nature of things. When we call something good we are referring to something beyond its physical properties. We can certainly limit the term “good” to physical properties when we say that someone has a good arm, for example, as a successful baseball pitcher does. But when we describe behavior or a state of being, we are saying something beyond such properties. When a child contracts some kind of disease, we call that an evil. But this goes beyond a mere scientific description and provides a value to the situation. Such values are intertwined with science but are not merely scientific” (50-51).

Carrier seems to be talking about moral good here. I think he is confusing epistemology with metaphysics. I agree with Carrier that we cannot know someone is a good person without seeing his actions (effects), but it doesn’t follow that the actions/effects are the only things that are good. To say “‘Good can only ever be defined in terms of effects” is reductionistic and assumes materialism. I am not denying that we see good effects; I am saying that it is not merely the effects that are good, but the person doing the effects would be good too, but in a valuative way that is not merely physical. It is certainly the case, as Carrier notes, that good people’s actions are observable (although I’m not sure about testable and measurable). I further would argue, though, that it is not natural science that tells us if an action is morally good. That is in the purview of ethics, moral philosophy, and even philosophical antrhopology. And it is certainly not the case that we can simply say “ditto God” since he is a qualitatively different being than humans.

Carrier further states: “Instead, Huffling tries to pervert the very definition of ‘good’ by essentially identifying even evil as good, declaring ‘existence itself is good.’ False. Evil’s existing does not make it good; existing is not a good-making property of evil. To the contraty [sic : evil existing is precisely what is not good about it. Cancer is good because it exists? . . . It lacks the property of goodness by existing.”

I am not identifying evil as good. Carrier and I are looking at the nature of evil from two different points of view. I am looking at it from a classical philosophical position while he is looking at it from a biological position. What I mean when I say disease is evil is that it is evil for the person who has it. It prohibits the person from attaining a healthy life. But, from what I understand about biology, the virus (for example), is not inherently evil. It is evil because of what it does to someone. But existence can’t be the cause of lack of something, as Carrier holds. It doesn’t lack goodness by virtue of existing. To the degree that something has existence it by definition does not lack existence. Evil in the classical (philosophical) sense is a corruption or privation of what something is supposed to be. A virus is a corruption of what our cells are supposed to be like. But again, science cannot tell us that it is evil, it only describes what a virus is. But of course, to the person a virus is evil.

Regarding God’s goodness he declares:

“Huffling attempts the same trickery again when he tries to argue God is not a ‘moral being’ but is still ‘good’ (p. 52). He is simply switching around what we call what, pledging belief in a completely amoral monster and, like Plantinga, simply ‘choosing’ to call it ‘good.’ When all the while, what he is describing in actual fact is indisputably evil. This is all a game. A game that can only fool an irrational man. Reasonable people aren’t taken in by semantic trickery like this. They know a thing cannot be changed in what it really is by the perverse device of merely changing what it’s called.”

It is interesting that my entire article centers around the argument that God is not a moral being and Carrier’s only response is that it is trickery with me switching meanings of “good.” I think the attentive reader of my articles will see that I am not merely “‘choosing’ to call it ‘good.’” It is fine if Carrier wants to ignore my reasoning but calling it irrational and mere semantics demonstrates his lack of attention to the philosophy behind my argument. There is no interaction with my argument at all, merely rhetoric.

Coming Full Circle

In his section under this title Carrier says something I simply cannot understand:

“Huffling’s entire tack—apart from his delusional irrationality about science, evidence, and identifying goodness in the world—indeed collapses under a standard fallacy of possibiliter ergo probabiliter: God’s goodness remains possible despite all evidence to the contrary, ‘therefore’ we should conclude it’s probable.”

Nowhere did I assert that God’s goodness is possible, therefore probable. Carrier simply refuses to read and consider what I actually did say. Actually, I said that given God’s existence (assumed, not argued for except to explain my reasoning), God is metaphysically perfect—not possibly good, but actually good. And due to his nature he is not beholden to human standards. After all, why would the creator of humans be bound by their moral code? God is simply metaphysically different. But this kind of distinction is philosophical, not mathematical/scientific.

The next mischaracterization by Carrier is as follows: “Eventually Huffling says Shermer was presenting the Logical Argument from Evil and so all Huffling has to do is argue for a possibility of an excuse. But that’s not true. Possibility doesn’t get you to probability; and so it doesn’t get you to any warranted belief.” I was not arguing “for a possibility of an excuse.” I was rejecting one of the argument’s core assumptions, which J. L. Mackie (a well-known atheist who used the logical problem of evil) said makes it so the problem does not arise. Thus, I was not looking for excuses, possibilities, or probabilities. I was questioning and rejecting a premise of the argument.

Carrier goes on to say “Shermer’s argument also wasn’t really the Logical Argument. It was thoroughly empirical; that’s why he kept mentioning science and facts and probability. He did not argue we can be certain God has no excuse; he argued there is no reason to believe any such excuse exists. That’s an inductive argument.” To be fair here, Shermer did say he doesn’t think we can demonstrate with certainty that God doesn’t exist. However, Shermer did lay out, both in the debate and in his article, the logical problem of evil. He cited the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and laid it out. It is this argument that is known as the logical argument. (J. L. Mackie describes the argument that Shermer laid out as the logical problem as well in The Problem of Evil edited by Adams and Adams, 25). To be sure, Shermer did also use informal arguments and “evidence” as well. However, my point was that both forms make the same assumption: that God is like humans with obligations as to what he should do. Reject that assumption and the argument fails. Mackie agreed: “Now once the problem [as Shermer laid out] is fully stated it is clear that it can be solved, in the sense that the problem will not arise if one gives up at least one of the propositions that constitute it. If you are prepared to say that God is not wholly good . . . then the problem of evil will not arise for you” (26). That is exactly what I did. I rejected the notion that God is wholly good in the way that Mackie and Shermer meant it: perfectly morally good.

Next Carrier writes, “So Huffling errs repeatedly here, ever-leaning on the same fallacy, irrationally thinking all he needs to warrant believing a good God exists is the mere remotest possibility that one does. And then, satisfied by that complete failure of logic, he just hand-waves away the Inductive Argument (on p. 51), calling it ‘weaker,’ when in fact it’s far stronger, precisely because it does not require the elusive formal proof the Logical form does. It rather rests on vast reams of irrefutable evidence. Indeed it’s hardly possible to find a stronger argument for any conclusion anywhere.”

Again, I never made the possibly exists, therefore does exist statement. I do not hand wave the inductive argument away. Shermer actually never articulated the inductive problem as an actual argument the way it is usually formulated (saying that since there is so much evil then God probably doesn’t exist). He gave several versions of the logical problem and then two he called the “Irrefutable God Problem” and the “Identity Problem.” Neither are inductive arguments from evil. (I responded to these briefly on p. 54.) To be sure, he did give evidences from science that he used to show that belief in God is not warranted; but there was no clear inductive argument, while there were several examples of the deductive form in his article.

When I said that the logical argument is stronger, I meant there is a necessary entailment from the premises (that God cannot exist), rather than a probable conclusion (given all the evil in the world, God probably doesn’t exist). As Shermer stated himself, using such inductive means cannot show God’s existence is impossible with evil.

Conclusion

In his conclusion Carrier maintains, “Science can test any model that will have observable effects on the world. And any system can be described with a model. God plus a universe constitutes a single system. We can therefore model that system—of a universe with a god making, sustaining, and interacting with it. We can then play out the model, and thus predict what will happen in that model, and thus what will be observed in any system described by that model.” Science can indeed study effects but not immaterial causes. It is also presumptuous to say we can predict what God would do given his existence.

“It is therefore not, as Huffling falsely asserts, a question of what a good God ‘should’ do. It’s a simple question of what a good God would do, by any consistent definition of ‘good.’ We can model that. And that model entails predictions,” Carrier asserts. He continually fails to note there are different notions of good. What good means to a finite, created thing is not necessarily what it means with an infinite creator. As I have maintained during this whole discussion, atheists simply assume God is a big human. This is evidenced by his next statements: “If God is not a person, he is not a god. And if he is not a good person, he is not good. So we have our model. Give God the mind of any good person, and the means and resources of a god. The outcome is reasonably predictable.” As I have stated, it is debatable within theism what it means for God to be a person. Classical theists argue that “God is a person” and “Bill is a person” do not mean the exact same thing. They are closer to the same thing for theistic personalists, of which I am not. But Carrier is making the mistake I have charged atheists and theists with alike: over anthropomorphizing God. “Give God the mind of any good person, and the means and resources of a god . . .” Such a view of God is not the God of classical theism but more like the gods of the Greeks and Romans which I too reject.

He states, “Lo, observation simply doesn’t fit what Huffling’s model predicts. And when he confessed to Shermer that he ‘doesn’t know’ why God allows evil, he is admitting that neither he nor anyone on earth, in the whole of human history, can even conceive of any possible thing we could put in that model that would make it fit observation—other than removing God’s goodness or omnipotence, which means: either removing a god from the model, or admitting the only model that fits observation is one with a god devoid of any measurable goodness.” The statement I made to Shermer that “I don’t know” why God allows evil was an answer to the question he asked regarding why God doesn’t stop particular evils like childhood cancer. And other than giving answers to the problem of evil in general we don’t know why God allows particular evils to take place. But this does not entail that God does not exist. Further, Carrier simply fails to see the distinction between metaphysical and moral goodness regarding God and creatures. He has made no distinction regarding how various beings can be good. This was my entire point of the debate and article. However, Carrier is locked into a univocal view of goodness between creatures and the creator, such that the goodness of both can be “measured” (whatever that means).

He concludes his essay by saying, “And that’s why the Logical Argument from Evil is compelling.” (I thought we weren’t talking about the logical argument.) He states this is not because the argument is airtight, but because nothing else fits “the model,” especially irrational belief in God.

In conclusion, Carrier ultimately fails to interact with the metaphysical arguments I put forward and rather maintains that God is basically like man (or would be). My position is that God—granting his existence since I have not set out to prove it in any of my exchanges with Shermer, or here except to explain my reasoning—is simply not like created things. He has no moral obligations like we do since there is no higher law than himself. Such a view of goodness that Carrier maintains is required to make the (logical?) problem of evil work. This is the assumption I have been challenging all along. As Mackie asserted, once one gives up such assumptions, the problem of evil does not arise.

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