Eric MacDonald on bad design and theodicy

December 11, 2009 • 6:49 am

Reader Eric MacDonald made a comment about my last post that I want to put above the fold because it makes an important point.  Given that theologians spend a lot of their time rationalizing all the ills, evils, and injustices of the world as necessary concomitants of God’s existence (indeed, as proof of God’s existence), isn’t it incumbent on them to answer this simple question:  What kind of world would convince you that there is no God?

I can easily describe what kind of evidence would convince me that evolution had not taken place, but many of the faithful can’t reciprocate.  Theirs is an airtight belief system, immune to falsification.

As you may know, Eric is a former Anglican priest who had his own experience with divinely inexplicable tragedy.  I’ve added one link to his comment:

Eric MacDonald
Posted December 11, 2009 at 6:01 am | 

Let’s put the emphasis where it belongs. Klinghoffer mistakes a simple argument that shows conclusively that the body was not intelligently designed for the argument from evil. So tagging on his argument about theodicy and his knee is just silly. Besides, if he hadn’t taken to running too much, which is hard on knees, he wouldn’t be suffering from his knee just now. So, he can’t blame the design fault for his problems.

He thinks the alternative to running is being a hamster! Well, that’s really stretching a point. A perfectly reasonable alternative to running too much, when his knee misbehaves itself, is running less, not crawling into a hamster cage.

But to use this argument from self-inflicted injury to justify all the horrendous evils which exist in the world is about the stupidest thing I’ve ever read.

And theodicists can be exceedingly stupid. In order to make theodicy a reasonable pursuit, theodicists must tell us beforehand what would defeat the idea that there is a god. But they never do. So, in the end, every evil is compassed by their arguments, even evils they haven’t dreamed of yet. So theodicy is not a well-formed argument. And anyone who tries to justify some of the truly horrendous things that happen to people just on the basis that the alternative is living like a hamster, is quite obviously lacking some common sense and some straightforward knowledge about the world of suffering people.

It never ceases to amaze me, however, how absurdly petty the arguments really are, and how easily monstrous evil is dispensed with by men and women comfortably ensconced in their studies pounding at their computer keyboards. If the worst that has happened to you is self-inflicted injury to your kness, you really are a bit like a hamster in a cage. You really need to get off the spinning wheel of words, and get out a bit.

39 thoughts on “Eric MacDonald on bad design and theodicy

  1. It never ceases to amaze me, however, how absurdly petty the arguments really are, and how easily monstrous evil is dispensed with by men and women comfortably ensconced in their studies pounding at their computer keyboards.


    A thousand times this.

    The theologians who work their damnedest to justify evil in the world probably did more to push me away from belief and towards atheism than any biology text ever managed. I was raised Catholic, after all, and so it wasn’t incumbent on me to believe in a literal creation or that God put people together piece by piece – you can “explain” it all away by an appeal to theistic evolution which has the dual benefits of both fitting all of the evidence at hand and being completely unfalsifiable.

    But theodicy. When I started to doubt it was mainly due to the problem of suffering in the world (among other things) and when I turned to apologists to find justification I was appalled. A more disgusting, disturbing, and frankly immoral set of arguments I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere. All to get an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God off the hook for causing innocent creatures like animals – nevermind children or humans in general – to undergo horrible suffering in their lives. It was awful.

    In the end suff like that was what really what pushed me away from Christianity. The only justification that made any sense to me was the Calvinist stance and I found that stance so morally reprehensible to my very core that even if there was a God who fit those characteristics I wouldn’t want to sit next to him on the bus, let alone worship him.

    Some people are sad about losing their faith and say things like “I wish I could still believe but I can’t”. Not me. I wish that the world were such that an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator was a valid hypothesis for how the world operates. Then I’d be sad about losing my faith (if anyone could lose faith in a world like that). With the world as it is, I’d prefer if there weren’t an omniscient, omnipotent overseer watching over it all. Because if such a being existed and this world was what he did with his omnipotence then he’d be a sadistic monster who needs to be put down, not worshiped as a god.

    1. theistic evolution which has the dual benefits of both fitting all of the evidence at hand and being completely unfalsifiable.

      I think I know what you mean in that you can’t falsify gods especially, but that doesn’t make “theistic evolution” any more or less falsifiable than the scientific theory. They both make the same predictions except one, and they can both be falsified. (Whereupon “theistic evolution” will be abandoned for another “theory”, of course.)

      What dooms “theistic evolution” is that evolution is explicitly a non-agent theory, it predicts that biological systems are due to non-agent processes of various kinds.

      We have not found any such evolutionary, or otherwise, agency in tests. For example as opposed to what Ken Miller thinks QM stochasticity is explicitly without local hidden variables and have started to be found wanting on non-local hidden variables as well, so another failed test. (Sorry, no reference handy, but there is an arxiv paper on a set of non-locals that are forbidden.)

      I can’t say it is tested beyond reasonable doubt, but it is tested. And theism is, as always, found wanting.

  2. The way I like to ask it is: “Can you conceive of a universe in which God does not exist?”

    If not, either your imagination is impoverished, or your definition of “God” is an empty tautology.

    If so, tell me how that universe differs from ours, and we can go about looking for the difference — i.e., it becomes a scientific question.

    1. Well, hell. No really, Hell is where God doesn’t exist according to Christian mythology.

      Though in the apologists defense conceiving a reality outside our own might be like asking a geometric ray to think three dimensionally.

    2. Hello…

      Question: Are you the Endless Forms Most Beautiful Sean Carroll?

      Possible responses:

      A) No
      B) Yes

      My response to your response:

      If (A), sorry to bother you.


  3. Personally, I am glad that theists use apologetics and theodicy. These drive people away who look into their irrational justifications in any depth.

    1. Imagine my surprise when I came back and saw what Jerry had done (putting my post above the fold). Thanks Jerry. I take it the important point, seldom made, is about well-formed arguments. I’ve just been going through a host of ill-formed ones, so I had to put it down somewhere.

      As to Norm’s point. I’m not a kinesiologist (is that what they’re called?), but the article is about running and arthritis, and this little warning is issued: “There are all sorts of individual exceptions, says Blair, and it’s important for everyone to be careful and not over-do it.” (I take it that there are other forms of knee dysfunction.) Klinghoffer apparently did. As both Jerry and Richard Dawkins say in their books (WEIT and TGSOE), evolutionary outcomes are a tradeoff between (say) strength and expenditure of energy. If knees are strong enough for most purposes, evolutionary forces aren’t going to add more strength at the cost of cutting corners somewhere else. I think that’s the way it works. An additional thing is that the technology of shoes has evolved so much that a lot of the stress on knees has been dealt with by advanced design heels and toes, and special cushioning materials. You should try doubling in combat boots though around a naval base. It was hard on my knees. I suspect evolution can’t predict what we’ll do to our bodies, unless it happens to be an environmental variable common enough to favour one design over another in the lottery of survival.

  4. The way I like to ask it is: “Can you conceive of a universe in which God does not exist?”

    Exactly. For me the answer is yes, and that’s a universe in which there is no contingency. Or put another way, what would make me an atheist is overwhelming that the universe is the way it is, because it cannot be any other way.

    And I agree with Sean that is a scientific question. (I think Einstein once said he wanted to know ultimately whether Der Alter (God) had any choice in how the universe turned out.

    For what it’s worth.

    1. Well, I’m a compatibilist myself. I think the determinism/free-will problem is an artifact of a dualistic worldview. Not being a dualist myself, it doesn’t bother me.

      As for the universe having to be the way it is – the study of necessary fact is named “mathematics”.

  5. Well, Duh! That’s what comes of prioritising a kitchen timer! You put the important point right at the beginning. I was just so surprised that I didn’t notice! Sorry. Chalk it up to Internet Inattention Syndrome.

  6. This is exactly the problem I face when people insist that prayer works. When the prayer seems answered (people get cured, people get jobs) I’m pointed to that as evidence for the power of prayer. But when prayers aren’t answered , its because of God’s mysterious plan, or God knows best or prevention of a bigger problem etc. When posed with the question What will make you admit prayer doesn’t work?, a few honestly admit, Nothing ,whats worse is , they don’t think this is a bad thing.

  7. So things like the temporomandibular joint being prone to arthritis, and the endless suffering that comes along with that isn’t evidence of a historical legacy or a mismatch between current environments? (arthritis from lack of exposure to pathogens the immune system evolved to face, or improper posture, exercise and diet) but of some god who wants to presumably diversify human experience? Its a sick, backwards thought.

    Its not just that it would need to be a god who made things look as if they evolved, but one who directly punishes any kind of removal from our ancestors environment. I can’t think of a good reason why deworming people creates waves of auto immune diseases (Guam and the asthma epidemic) outside of an immune system primed by historical legacy expecting certain threats.

  8. Tell someone whose suffered with arthritis for a decade since youth that their pain and suffering exists so that others may appreciate their lack of suffering, or to diversify experience, the look of disgust they give you should convey the horror of that sentiment better than words can do justice.

    Nature is indifferent to suffering, it will actively encourge suffering If suffering encourges genetic propagation or if a gene conveys some benefit in youth, it may not be beneficial consistantly throughout life.

    The iron accumulation characteristic of hemochromotosis may be beneficial in youth, in areas where dietary iron is scarce, to menstruating women but that same iron accumulation can cause death or disease in dozens of ways, arthritis from iron buildup or even damaged organs.

    Chronic pain is a heavy burden to carry, one of the only consolation a person has is the why/how (which is partially explained by evolution, why we are prone) that offers a great deal of comfort, understanding. I can’t imagine such burdens are easier to bear constantly asking “Why me, god?” or the idea god allows suffering for X.

    Its wrong to begin with AND unsatisfying to suffering people.(probably traumatic for some)

  9. Talking about “the stupidest thing I’ve ever read”, as most of your readers will know, Kent Hovind’s (the nutiest of the nutty anti evolutionists) ‘Dissertation’ has been recently made available online ( and PZ Myers both link to it) and it is fucking hilarious. Seriously, there’s an egregious howler of one sort or another in every paragraph (Darwin’s Origin published in 1860; ‘plate tatonics’ etc).

    So, how about a competition Jerry?

    Let’s see who can come up with the most hilarious quotation from it. I’ll volunteer you to give a copy of your book as a prize!

    1. Sorry, I downloaded it and read the first 4 pages and skimmed the rest. I don’t have the stomach to actually read more of it. I would get violently ill from reading more of his ‘dissertation’.

  10. I have had an auto-immune condition which attacks my joints ( and eyes ) for about 35 years now, so I feel qualified to comment and all I can say is what kind of a seriously messed up god designs an immune system that can turn on itself ? Although come to think of it, I suppose that’s what happened with Satan, god’s heavenly T cell decided he didn’t like the look of all that stuff floating around the heavenly body and decided to give it a kicking, so even god’s body isn’t designed properly, somebody sack him please.

  11. Making a stupid argument is merely Klinghoffer’s first fault. For me, the bigger sin is his failure to ever make coherent sense of his superficial theodicy and the other aspects of his faith. In all cases I have ever read, theodicy apologists may justify a reason for evil (though often very poorly), but they ultimately obliterate their faith’s ‘vision’ of the creator in the process.

    For example, Klinghoffer argues that God creates (or simply allows) suffering so humanity will grow and not become a kept animal in a cage. Fine, if we accept his argument, this also means that God is not interested in any sort of true “personal” relationships with humans (since a large number of us simply have to die in order for mankind to “grow up”), nor can one accept this and still believe God cares about each and everyone of us personally. Such a God can’t really be considered either compassionate or good, or even all that powerful if he has to resort to such crude methods of teaching — that is, if Klinghoffer’s explanation has any sort of merit at all. To believe Klinghoffer’s theodicy, one has to accept that God has little more intelligence than some sort of cosmic git who has little notion of his own omnipotence and has a single desire to see humans *eventually* evolve into a “buddy” for God to while away the hours of eternity out in front of the cosmic drugstore talking about the good ol’ days.

    In short, either all theodicy is wrong, or all the highly-touted concepts of God are wrong, or (as Dawkins and the rest of us choose to believe) both are wrong. While we atheists may be wrong in our beliefs, at least our interpretation is coherent enough to be considered right or wrong. Klinghoffer and other “theodiots” like him, don’t seem to even reach the most basic levels of comprehension of the very question under consideration (which might explain why their attempted answers seem so incredibly stupid in the first place).

  12. Yay for Eric. What I find is that the closer theodicists get to saying something coherent the more morally monstrous they make their God sound – and the more morally monstrous they sound themselves.

  13. Another post that I have serious difficulties with. Maybe because it’s friday :-/, but anyway.

    – The post claims that incorporating unknown events in an argument would not be a well-formed argument.

    But theories are well-formed and yet incorporates unknowns. For example, the definition of energy still let us observe dark energy.

    – Sean Carroll claims that tautologies are empty, and apparently a problem.

    But fully tested theories and the data they predict are in principle tautologies (with each other obviously, by way of predictions), and meaningful ones. It is the process that both makes and breaks these tautologies. For example, new data or in some cases better theories.

    IMO as long as there is a description theologists will be happy, and they purposefully make the argument untestable. However, if it is an independent ad hoc phenomena, i.e. if they claim that gods exist regardless of observation, regardless of ‘evil’, it is merely equivalent with solipsism.

    And solipsism is the ultimate folly, the ultimate religion. For a demonstration of that, besides the untestable unknowability of it all, I know no one better than David Deutsch in “The Fabric of Reality”.

    In short, if you take the solipsist vow of ‘you’ being the universe, you still have to commit to the lawfulness of (most of) it. Which means, as the ‘internal’ universe is the largest part of ‘you’, that ‘you’ are actually realist, plus some added baggage.

    In the same way, these solipsist religions self-destruct.

    1. Not quite. You are metaphorically linking the ‘unknown’ (dark energy) and the ‘unknowable’ (evil), which is a flaw in reason. Eric’s argument notes that without any way to even define evil (i.e. evil is unknowable) the argument becomes totally open-ended and could conceivably include anything and everything. Using such a rhetorical device clearly makes for a very weak argument and for an impossible debate. On the other hand having a (mostly) undefined entity — like dark energy — is not the same thing because dark energy, while entirely unknown in virtually all ways, is still hypothesized as a form of energy. Thus, it can be falsified, limited, and fairly debated around that single known dimensional aspect. In short, there is nothing so defined for “evil” that one can rightly correlate to the very concrete “energy” aspect of dark energy. That is the difference between something being potentially real and true (a science concept) and something being merely a bunch of piffle (a metaphysical concept).

  14. Since I am unsophisticated when it comes to theology, I take the claims of religion at face value and I’ve never accepted that the ‘problem of evil’ is a problem for believers at all.

    In the beginning God created everything, and when he looked upon His creation He saw that it was good. Then 2 humans ate a piece of forbidden fruit and, six thousand years later, this forbidden act caused tectonic plates to move, resulting in a tsunami that drowned 300,000 people, at least half of them children.

    What’s incoherent about that?

  15. It being Friday, and night already in my hemisphere, may I beg to suggest a biological antidote to a surfeit of theodicy? Zymurgy contra idiocy, so to speak?

    Oh many a peer of England brews
    Livelier liquor than the Muse,
    And malt does more than Milton can
    To justify God’s ways to man.
    Ale, man, ale’s the stuff to drink
    For fellows whom it hurts to think:
    Look into the pewter pot
    To see the world as the world’s not.
    And faith, ’tis pleasant till ’tis past:
    The mischief is that ’twill not last.

    “Ale for fellows whom it hurts to think”: a sound recipe, I trust.
    A.E. Housman was a wise chap.

  16. It never ceases to amaze me, however, how absurdly petty the arguments really are, and how easily monstrous evil is dispensed with by men and women comfortably ensconced in their studies pounding at their computer keyboards.


    I have seen an even more monstrous argument from theists about suffering than this, though.

    That it’s designed to make them more faithful.

    For example, I saw Pru Goward (someone I once thought reasonable) make the claim that the tsunami had increased her faith (huh? Well, okay …, I thought), and then went on to suggest that in fact that had been God’s purpose – to make her more faithful.

    She actually thought that God had killed a quarter of a million people in the Asian tsunami, injured hundreds of thousands, orphaned hundreds of thousands… simply to make her, Pru Goward, slightly more faithful.

    How monstrous is that?

    If I had truly come to such a conclusion, my immediate reaction would be that such a god deserved nothing but contempt. And, I’m afraid that I find it very difficult to retain anything but contempt for people that can say something so monstous as if it were a good thing.

    1. Exactly. The gruesome egomania of people who stand in a landscape littered with corpses and smashed houses and tell a tv reporter that God saved them…never ceases to amaze me.

    2. I said a few words on the subject in the essay I wrote for 50 Voices of Disbelief

      People seem to know that God is good, that God cares about everything and is paying close attention to everything, and that God is responsible whenever anything good happens to them or whenever anything bad almost happens to them but doesn’t. Yet they apparently don’t know that God is responsible whenever anything bad happens to them, or whenever anything good almost happens to them but doesn’t. People who survive hurricanes or earthquakes or explosions say God saved them, but they don’t say God killed or mangled all the victims. Olympic athletes say God is good when they win a gold, but they don’t say God is bad when they come in fourth or twentieth, much less when other people do.

      That’s the advantage of goddy epistemology, of course: it’s so extraordinarily flexible, so convenient, so personalized. The knowledge is so neatly molded to fit individual wishes. God is good when I win and blameless when I lose, good when I survive the tsunami and out of the equation when other people are swept away and drowned.

      1. Hence the title: The Teflon God.

        There’s a humourous article of that title online somewhere that is worth reading if you can find it.

        The best example of this kind of narcissism that always makes me laugh is when a sportsperson claims that he/she owes it all to God. What did God have against the other guy!

  17. The word “theodicy” looks almost like a compound word made of “theocracy” and “idiocy”.

    So, maybe that explains it all! 🙂

  18. “What kind of world would convince you that there is no God?”

    No world at all.
    Indeed, no worlds at all, no universe at all – nothing.

    “Nothingness” is atheism in a nutshell.
    Nothing made everything in atheism.
    Thankfully the hard sciences and math tell us that the energetic potential of nothing is always nothing.

    This is the most obvious thing in the ‘world’ – except to the ill thinking, escapist atheists.

    Indeed, and using atheist “logic”, 10^1000 x 0 does not equal 0 but some humongous positive number!

    Atheist Sir Fred Hoyle hit the nail on the head when he said, “Because the old believers said that God came out of the sky, thereby connecting the Earth with events outside it, the new believers were obliged to say the opposite and to do so, as always, with intense conviction. Although the new believers had not a particle of evidence to support their statements on the matter, they asserted that the rabbit producing sludge (called soup to make it sound more palatable) was terrestrially located and that all chemical and biochemical transmogrifications of the sludge were terrestrially inspired. Because there was not a particle of evidence to support this view, new believers had to swallow it as an article of faith, otherwise they could not pass their examinations or secure a job or avoid the ridicule of their colleagues. So it came about from 1860 onward that new believers became in a sense mentally ill, or, more precisely, either you became mentally ill or you quitted the subject of biology, as I had done in my early teens. The trouble for young biologists was that, with everyone around them ill, it became impossible for them to think they were well unless they were ill, which again is a situation you can read all about in the columns of Nature [magazine].” (Hoyle, F., “Mathematics of Evolution,” [1987]

    But Hoyle should have gone one step further and asked why and how there is something rather than nothing.
    Fortunately, that is something that blind-minded and blind-hearted atheism can never explain.

    Hoyle should have lived a little longer – he may have arrived at the only reasonable answer – there is a God – like Flew and so many others.

    Atheism is a minor form of insanity because it is nothing but denial of reality and wishful thinking.
    And all the laughable and ill-reasoned, junk philosophy of a Coyne or a Dawkins will never change that.

    As Voltaire stated, “The atheists are for the most part imprudent and misguided scholars who reason badly who, not being able to understand the Creation, the origin of evil, and other difficulties, have recourse to the hypothesis the eternity of things and of inevitability…..”

  19. Wow Hitch, that is a lot of talk about nothing. I guess that matches your mind which is completely full of nothing.

    Your comment is the biggest collection of inane garbage I have seen in a long time.

    Fred “Big Bang” Hoyle, who had almost everything wrong except his science fiction story, is your hero. That gives me such a big laugh.

    Losers like you Hitch, throw up any incoherent sentences because you know that reason and logic and history is completely against you. Two thousand years of stupid asinine apologetics like yours shows how infantile your thoughts have become. You have no evidence, no logic, no reason for your position – just a lot of nothing.

    You still need your father figure, I guess, because your own father must have failed you so much.

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