Reading Time: 9 minutes By Joreth (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Who knew.

The background: Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong and I have been arguing about the unfair distribution of evidence for God in the world and over time. This has been a somewhat protracted argument due to too much time spent erecting straw men and not enough time doing the legwork. I obliged, and developed an apologetic argument that could look to get the theist out of the pickle.

It goes something like this.

(1) God is OmniGod (classical theism: -potent, -scient, -benevolent).

(2) Part of OmniGod’s necessary characteristics would be fairness.

(3) God desires humanity to believe in him and to enter into a loving relationship with him.

(4) Belief isn’t just blind faith and requires some basis in evidence for what is to be believed (e.g., the Bible, being able to touch Jesus, personal revelation etc.).

(5) This evidence is unevenly distributed amongst the population over time and place (i.e., from 0% to 99.9% – e.g., perhaps Thomas).

(6) Unfair distribution of evidence (over which God has sovereign control) is unfair and favours certain people.

(7) Therefore God is either unfair (not OmniGod) or does not exist.

There are several options for the theist here:

(a) God is ultimately fair; i.e., God is being unfair for a greater good. There is some kind of theodicy at play here that extends past a person’s/humanity’s Earthly life.

The problem here (as with all theodicies, to be honest) is that each instance of initial unfairness (or suffering) is using the agent instrumentally. This is moral consequentialism (utilitarianism), a moral system most theists deny or call “a terrible ethic”.

(b) The unfairness of evidence is balanced by an uneven distribution of evidentially external causal circumstances (cognitive abilities, genetics, life experiences, and so on). In other words, someone’s lack of evidence is balanced by them being more likely to believe on less evidence, and the overall balance is that each individual’s outcome has parity of epistemological strength.

If this is truly the case, then why do some people still reject God? These causal circumstances, taking into account evidence, must surely give everyone sufficient reason to believe, so why do most not?

Well, let’s forget that apologists like Armstrong don’t understand the meaning of “sufficient” and say that where they go from here is to build on (b), where (b) means that all humans have potentially sufficient reasons to believe (where this is arbitrary as a benchmark and seems to be based on people like Armstrong themselves: “Well, I’ve got X amount of evidence to believe, so that should be sufficient for everyone to believe!”).

Before I settle on how Armstrong actually gets out of this (though you’ve guessed it from the title, right?), let me remind you of the counter-argument I presented in my last piece to this kind of balance:

  1. God is fair (as part of OmniGod theism).
  2. We live in a world where humans appear to not have “equality of access to God” (EOAG).
  3. If God was to be fair, he would give every human identical EOAG.
  4. To give every human identical EOAG, God would have to create some sort of homogenous world.
  5. Homogenous worlds are in some sense less perfect/good/desirable than the sort of world we live in.
  6. Therefore, there is some good reason (skeptical theism) – a greater good –  that God has created a world where humans appear to not have EOAG.
  7. (Or god does not exist or is not OmniGod.)

All of this aside, what Armstrong lumps for in the end is claiming (b), but building on it.

(c) God is not unfair, so all responsibility for not believing, given ultimately (so theists claim) even distribution of variables, is free will. God is far, it’s just that humans choose to not believer in God, to reject God, and even though they have “sufficient” evidence to believe (where “sufficient” self-evidently does not mean “sufficient”!). As Armstrong states in a previous post:

I think God does provide sufficient evidence (of all sorts) for every human being, but human beings have various mechanisms by which they rationalize such things away or reject them. If it’s not efficient enough to bring about belief (I’m not a Calvinist and believe in human free choices and free will) then one can either criticize God or point out that perhaps the person involved has an irrational demand. The fault can conceivably be on either side. God’s not to blame for everything (as many of His critics seem to think).

Before going on to state this in his last one:

Seriously, though, free will and foreknowledge, etc., is a huge, huge topic in and of itself. At some point it should be discussed, but it’s too “large and lumpy” to visit in the midst of this “unfair God” accusation under present consideration….

[In response to claims of sufficient evidence…] As indeed there is, But because of human free will, we have the freedom to pursue erroneous ideas and go down wrong paths of thinking and behaving. And these work against the knowing of God: both His existence and Him, personally. The “God” that atheists reject (and I know something about that, having debated scores and scores of them) is an entity that I don’t know at all. It certainly ain’t the biblical God. It’s a gross distortion of Him, and a ridiculous caricature. That (not the one true God) is what is rejected. And so with this massive amount of ignorance, there is hope that the atheists in bondage to such ignorance and folly can eventually see the light.

Which is to say:

  1. Free will is too difficult a topic to talk about, but…
  2. It’s the free will of humans that allows them to choose to reject even though they have sufficient causal circumstances to believe.
  3. But refer to (1) and we’ll leave it at that, right?
  4. But, really, (2).
  5. No returns.

The Zero Evidence Problem

Of course, as you’ve probably recognised, this doesn’t help humans who have not had any access at all to evidence, such as those born before the Bible or in geographical locations where any knowledge of the Christian or Hebrew Bible is impossible. What someone like Dave Armstrong has to argue here is similar to what William Lane Craig has claimed: that such people would reject Christianity no matter how much evidence they could be provided and so God front-loads those poor souls into the time period before the Bible existed or into geographical locations whereby they never had access to the evidence. These people are some kind of cannon fodder for hell.

You cannot reject Christ without knowing the first thing about Christ. Christianity is dependent, in at least some meaningful way, on some kind of knowledge qua evidence of Christianity.

Not only is this an entirely asserted scenario without any evidence at all but it is fraught with problem. Not least that these humans appear to have been designed and created by God but with absolutely no chance of accessing God through belief in him and its resultant loving union. In other words, God has produced these poor souls only to condemn them to hell without any chance at all of believing in her or escaping hell (or similar). Remember, God has ultimate control and responsibility over the entire universe that, with foreknowledge, she created anyway. You cannot absolve her from moral responsibility here.

And yes, all the usual problems with divine foreknowledge and free will raise their ugly heads.

The Free Will Problem

There is a bifurcation here whereby one’s rejection of God is either caused by something or it is uncaused. Causality is binary so you cannot have something that is a mixture of the two, or somewhere on a continuum between two, because it is not a continuum. You either have caused or uncaused (where uncaused is equivalent to random).

This is, indeed, the whole free will problem in philosophy and faith-blind Dave Armstrong runs headlong into it like the big brick wall it is. If the person’s rejection of God is uncaused, then it is random and they have no causal responsibility over that decision. I:t is unfair to punish them. If it is caused, then variables outside of their control are responsible for the decision; therefore, it is unfair to punish them. And Armstrong cannot rely on agent causality as some magic bullet to get out of this problem, where an agent can magically overcome all causal circumstance to just somehow choose contra-causally. What is the choice based on? How is it formulated in a way that does not appeal at all to causal variables? Seriously, Dave, actually try and answer that. Try to put into words how an agent can choose something, but in your explanation, you are not allowed to invoke any antecedent reasoning or causality.

Your explanation would be nonsense and lack any meaningful substance at all.

It seems that Dave believes that someone like me has exactly the same causal circumstance value to believe in God as he does. Let’s assume that this is the case. Dave and I have what he terms as “sufficient evidence” to believe. This is patently false because it is not “sufficient” because I don’t believe. Indeed, it is insufficient, precisely because I don’t believe. What he really means is that I have potentially enough evidence and causal circumstance to believe in God (because he does), if only I was more like him. But I’m not, right? The difference being that I exert my free will to reject God and he doesn’t, apparently. But what is it about me that causes me to reject God, but that is not relevant to him? It can’t be uncaused qua random, so…

Lo and behold, this is the classic free will problem. What is it about me that leads me to reject God? Bear in mind here that he is not allowed to bring into play any antecedent causality because I don’t have control over that. I cannot control what happened to me in my past at this point in time, I cannot control my genes and my biology and the mood I’m in right now, and I cannot control my environment around me right now. At this exact point of deciding whether to believe in God or not, there is just my executive decision-making function under “my” control, as Dave would have it (something that makes absolutely no sense to me devoid of causal circumstance variables like brain, genes etc.). So when you ask me why I reject God now, if I’m ignoring my entire causal circumstance, then I literally have no reasoning as to why I don’t believe since that is all result since and dependent upon things outside of my control. Therefore, the decision looks uncaused or random.

Daniel Dennett and others recognise this: libertarian free will needs causal determinism to make any sense at all.

The Soul Problem

Dave will probably invoke something nebulous and unevidenced like “the soul”, but this is even more problematic, since he has to divorce the soul from my brain, genes, past, environment, learning, and all other areas of antecedent causality so that the soul is literally as unconnected to me as can possibly be. It is some entity over which I can exert no control in some meta vicious cycle, floating in some causal vacuum. Yet it somehow, in this unconnectedness, has executive power to overcome my causal circumstance (where Dave’s soul accepted God) to reject God. Why? How?

“Because it is evil. Because it wanted to.”

“Why is it evil? Why did it want to? Why is my soul different to your soul?” There must be reasons, otherwise it is random.

If this derivative duel continues, the libertarian will realise that it devolves down to either uncaused random or antecedent causality.

To keep it in the soul domain, it ends up only looking like random, uncaused causation. See:

Until Dave Armstrong solves this free will quandary, and this is something no philosopher has adequately solved in 3000 years, then his whole thesis falls apart. Dave waves around “free will” and “freedom” like they are some magic get-out-of-jail-free card that require absolutely no (critical) thought. They are assertions that work against the laws of nature, philosophy and causality.

This is also why, if I were to debate someone like William Lane Craig, I would start the debate off with libertarian free will (LFW), because if the (non-deterministic, e.g., Calvinist) theist can’t establish LFW, the rest of theism/Christianity is irrelevant. Theology and theism effectively supervene on the free will debate. A judgemental god is built upon the foundation of LFW. LFW is incoherent; therefore, a judgemental god is incoherent.

So, Dave’s whole thesis falls apart. And I didn’t even get to mention mental –> physical supervenience!

The Reminder

Again, it is worth emphasising that God, knowing everything that would come to pass, designed and created this universe anyway. God had and has ultimate sovereign control and ultimate moral responsibility over creation. The theist hates this. Divine foreknowledge is a serious thorn in the theist’s side, so they spend all their time fighting fires here and there to try to extricate their god from moral responsibility and pin the blame, somehow, on humans. This move is so that we shoulder the blame for our own faulty phenotype and actions, and we shoulder the blame for our terrible decisions, and why we end up in hell. It can’t be God’s fault; God is love.

And malaria. And Covid-19. And tsunamis. And forest fires. And black holes.

The theist tries all this time to get God off the hook, twisting and turning, until they collapse into a philosophically knotted mess. Of course, this Gordian knot is solved with a swift swipe of the Sword of Skepticism. But you need an intelligence rating of 10+ to use that weapon (and remember, that is only achieved either by character design or rolling the dice).



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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...