Sunday, December 05, 2010

Pratchett, Alzheimer's, God and dicks

PZ has a post about the author Terry Pratchett, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.  He quotes Pratchett himself on the arbitrariness of the disease and the sad fact that there’s surprisingly little funding into Alzheimer's research.  He also quotes from one of Pratchett’s books, Unseen Academicals which talks of the ‘natural evil’ of a family of otters devouring a ‘family’ of salmon.

And that's when I first learned about evil. It is built in to the very nature of the universe. Every world spins in pain. If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.

An excellent sentiment.  PZ concludes:

The casual cruelty of nature is one example of the absence of a benevolent overseer in the universe. For another, I'd add the fact that Pratchett has been afflicted with a disease with no cure, of a kind that will slowly destroy his mind. We're left with only two alternatives: that if there is a god, he's insane or evil and rules the world with wanton whimsy; or the most likely answer, that there is no such being and it's simple chance that leads to these daily haphazard catastrophes.

PZ’s right, of course.  There’s not a thing we can recognise as benevolence in any putative creator of the universe.  The best we can probably do is say that existing – even in torment - is better in some sense than not existing at all, but it’s a remarkably weak and circular argument.  You’d think it would be quite easy for a universe creator to arrange matters so that suffering doesn’t happen.  Animals could all be vegetarian.  Everything could reproduce in just the proportion that meant everything had enough to eat and drink and enough space to hang out in.  The world could be free of disease.  Humans could have greater proclivity to be nice to each other and to the world around them.  None of this seems particularly hard to arrange if you’re starting from scratch and the fact that various organisms prey on and cause suffering to others is evidence not only that there’s no benevolent creator, but that evolution is true.  It reminds me of the joke where a stranger stops in the countryside and asks a local for directions to the city.  “Well,” answers the local “I wouldn’t start from here.”  The natural world is the way it is because evolution is opportunistic.  There’s no feasible rationale for a god to arrange things this way if it was motivated by benevolence. 

That someone as vibrant and intellectual and brilliant as Pratchett could suffer arbitrarily from so cruel an affliction is evidence itself for the non-existence or non-benevolence of a god. 

But naturally, some people disagree.  Siriusknotts at comment #7 says this:

Re: The casual cruelty of nature is one example of the absence of a benevolent overseer in the universe.

Actually PZ, the Bible explains the casual cruelty of nature as an effect of Man's sin against God. The world God created was very good, perfect. Sin came by Adam and death by sin. So before you shake your fist at the heavens or thumb your nose at your Creator, remember it's not His fault - it's ours. Rebellion against truth, good, perfect and life itself (all attributes of your Creator) leaves us inevitably with falsehoods, evil, corruption and death.

The wages (deserved earnings) of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

-Rev Tony Breeden
aka Sirius Knott

There’s so much wrong with this argument that I hardly know where to begin.  First, since PZ’s argument is that a god, if one existed, is morally reprehensible, it seems odd to proclaim god’s goodness by invoking original sin.  Original sin – the idea that god sentenced every human ever to a life of suffering because of the actions of their first ancestor - is surely about the most morally repugnant notion conceivable.  God’s punishing me because I’m sinful.  But I’m sinful because I was born that way.  God made sure I was born that way, so I can’t really help it.  Why did he do this?  Because Adam ate an apple.  How this equates to the suffering of all humanity being partly my fault, regardless of my actions in life, I do not know.

And it wasn’t as though god didn’t set Adam and Eve up for the fall in the first place.  Why put the magic tree there in the first place?  Why have a talking snake?  Why imbue your creations with curiosity and free will and perversely self-destructive proclivities?  Talk about poking an elephant’s arse with a stick and pretending not to know what would happen.  These are not the actions of someone with benevolence in mind.  Besides, it’s all a bit confusing.  As I understand it, Adam and Eve didn’t know good and evil until they ate the apple.  Isn’t god punishing them for something they didn’t know was wrong until after they’d done it?  And let’s not forget that the things god punished them (and the rest of us) for are some of the most noble qualities found in humans.  Blind obedience is not noble.  The Nuremberg defense is not acceptable because unquestioning obedience can so easily and often lead to atrocity.  It’s noble to question.  It’s noble to disobey when you’re told to do evil.  Christians and Jews somehow contrive to consider Abraham noble when he prepares to murder his son because god told him to.  I do not.  I very much hope I would refuse to do it regardless of the consequences to me. 

A god who wants to accentuate the worst qualities in people and punish the best isn’t using the same definition of “benevolence” as I am.  And this might be the case.  We’re often told that God moves in mysterious ways, as if that explains away problems like this.  We’re told that god and his motivations are beyond our understanding, that we’re missing the big picture and can’t apply the same standards of morality to god as to humans.  Despite the fact that we’re somehow supposed to have been created in his image.  This just leaves us with the problem that god deliberately created us with an entirely different sense of morality to his.  Doesn’t this virtually guarantee suffering? 

The troll blunders on, but I’m bored of correcting him.  He leaves the thread with the following:

Thank you! Thank you! You've all been wonderful! And predictable at best!

You almost instantly degenerated to forthing mockery and outrageous ad hominem, just as I inevitably knew you must. It's not like your interpretation of the evidence is ironclad. Even darwin admitted [in Origins, no less] that every bit of evidence he proposed for magical microbes-to-man evolution could be interpreted differently.

Ah, If Only Evolutionists Were Smart...

It's no wonder mockstars like PZ Myers are terrified to debate Creation scientists, if these are the only tactics you evos have at your disposal.

He’s responding to some of the other comments, some of which are downright rude. 

For example:

Austinfilm: Please save your appalling, morally bankrupt and misanthropic fairy tales for those small-minded and childish enough to find them worthwhile.

Glen Davidson: And there's a talking snake in that story, too!  Pretty convincing...

great.american.satan: Oh my Whatevah... We did not just get jebusrolled by a reverend. Get out of town. That shits just made my day.

Kieranfoy, Faerie Godfather of Death, GMKSC, OED: People, please. Don't engage the troll. Don't help it crap all over a thread dedicated to the memory of a wonderful, amazing and brilliant writer. Please.

Some comments engage Siriusknotts’ ‘argument’, but of course he ignores every single one of those and focuses on tone.  He leaves smugly, his preconceptions satisfied.  By focusing on tone, he feels justified in ignoring the actual counterarguments.  No doubt he’ll tell his friends about how nasty and intolerant and dickish atheists are.

An accomodationist might say that these people are Not Helping.  But here is an example of what I’ve talked about at some length before.  These are atheists on their home ground reacting to an idiot who invades the thread with ludicrous stories about magical talking snakes.  It reminds us how imbecilic is the basis of the Abrahamic religions.  It reminds us how little respect people deserve for holding these views. 

This – it seems to me – is Helping.  It’s unlikely to convert a True Believer, but – and this is what accomodationists seem so reluctant to admit – there are other ways of helping.

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