Debunking an urban legend: "Evil is a lack of something"

todangst's picture

Thanks to Martin at http://www.blogicandreason.blogspot.com/ for reformulating an argument of mine that I've given in the past. I'll use his reformulation:

Now for the story:

The university professor challenged his students with this question: Did God create everything that exists?" A student bravely replied, "Yes, he did!" "God created everything?" the professor asked. "Yes, Sir," the student replied.

The professor answered, "If God created everything, then God created evil; since evil exists and, according to the principal that our works define who we are then God is evil." The student became quiet before such an answer. The professor, quite pleased with himself, boasted to the students that he had proven once more that the Christian faith was a myth.

Another student raised his hand and said, "Can I ask you a question professor?" The student stood up and asked, "Professor, does cold exist?" "What kind of question is this? Of course it exists. Have you never been cold?" The students snickered at the young man's question. The young man replied, "In fact, Sir, cold does not exist. According to the laws of physics, what we consider cold is, in reality, the absence of heat. Every body or object is susceptible to study when it has or transmits energy, and heat is what makes a body or matter have or transmit energy. Absolute zero (-460° F) is the total absence of heat; all matter becomes inert and incapable of reaction at that temperature. Cold does not exist. We have created this word to describe how we feel if we have no heat."

The student continued, "Professor, does darkness exist?" The professor responded, "Of course it does." The student replied, "Once again you are wrong sir, darkness does not exist either. Darkness is in reality the absence of light. Light we can study, but not darkness. In fact we can use Newton's prism to break white light into many colors and study the various wavelengths of each color. You cannot measure darkness. A simple ray of light can break into a world of darkness and illuminate it. How can you know how dark a certain space is? You measure the amount of light present. Isn't this correct? Darkness is a term used by man to describe what happens when there is no light present."

Finally the young man asked the professor, "Sir, does evil exist?" Now uncertain, the professor responded, "Of course as I have already said. We see it every day. It is in the daily example of man’s inhumanity to man It is in the multitude of crime and violence everywhere in the world These manifestations are nothing else but evil."

To this the student replied, "Evil does not exist, Sir, or at least it does not exist unto itself. Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is not like faith, or love that exists just as result of what happens when man does not have God's love present in his heart. It's like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light."

The professor sat down.

The young man's name ---
Albert Einstein

You know that one? Good. Time to deconstruct it. Let's get started.

First - this story is an urban legend. It never happened:

http://www.snopes.com/religion/einstein.asp

Second - Einstein was a Pantheist, not a theist. Practically an atheist in disguise.

"I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings." Upon being asked if he believed in God by
Rabbi Herbert Goldstein of the Institutional Synagogue, New York,
April 24, 1921, Einstein: The Life and Times, Ronald W. Clark, Page 502.

"It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it." - Albert Einstein in Albert Einstein: The Human Side

Third - The college professor is put forth as an arrogant, dogmatic man who treats science like a religion and views questions from students as a challenge to his worldview. The student is put forth as a polite, honest, skeptic. Again, the reality is that the roles are reversed: while a scientist can be dogmatic and a theist can be skeptical, science itself is skeptical, and religion itself is dogmatic. The emotional immaturity of the professor is a projection of the emotions found in the sort of theist who would actually be inspired by this tripe.

Fourth - Cold is not 'the absence of heat' anymore than "heat is the absence of cold'. Both 'hot' and 'cold' are human references to the motion of atomic particles - "hot" and "cold" are not opposites (is 45 degrees the opposite of -45 degrees?) or the lack of one another, they are both subjective evaluations of the same thing - movement. Movement exists.

Fifth - This Thomistic-Augustinian semantic farce doesn't solve the problem of evil. Since an "evil" act requires human intent, a cognition, it's clearly ridiculous to call "evil" a non entity for this reason alone, but there is yet a stronger reason: as long as a theist holds that 'evil exists', it is a fallacy of basic metaphysics to argue that it 'exists' devoid of any ontology! To exist is to exist as something. Ergo, if 'evil' exists is must exist as something, not nothing.

Sixth - "Evil is simply the absence of God"? - What passage does the theist cite here? This contradicts passages that affirm that 'god' is the omnipotent creator. It also directly contradict: Isa 45:7 - I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these [things].

Note: some respond by stating that later versions of this passage change the word 'evil' to something else, such as causing disaster. However, to purposely cause disaster is to act in an evil manner, so this 'solution' just moves the problem one step back.

In addition, Rook Hawkins points out that a christian trying to defend this claim through redefinition has a lot of redacting to do:

”Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and evil come?”
(Lam. 3:38).

”...that I may repent of the evil, which I purpose to do unto them because of the evil of their doings” (Jer. 26:3).

”...all the evil which I purpose to do unto them; that they may return every man from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin” (Jer. 36:3).

”I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live. And I polluted them in their own gifts....” (Ezek. 20:25-26).

”For thus saith the Lord; as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them” (Jer. 32:42).

”...shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?” (Amos 3:6).

See also: Jer. 11:11, 14:16, 18:11, 19:3, 19:15, 23:12, 26:13, 26:19, 35:17, 36:31, 40:2, 42:10, 42:17, 44:2, 45:5, 49:37, 51:64, Ezek. 6:10, Micah 2:3, 1 Kings 21:29, 2 Chron. 34:24, and 2 Chron. 34:28

http://www.rationalresponders.com/debunking_whitefoxs_website_the_bible_door

Seventh: 'God' is defined in the bible as omnipresent, ergo there can be no 'absence of god' as per the negative trait applied to 'god'. (See my essay on "Omni traits' for passages in the bible that affirm omnipresence.)

**************************************************

Now, let's revisualize the above dialogue rationally. Where major editing is done, the justification is given in (parentheses).

Dialogue with a young theist (longer version)

A philosophy professor challenged his students with a form of the Euthyphro dilema: Did 'God' create everything that exists?" A student replied, "Yes, he did!" (The 'bravely' part is removed: civil disagreement is the very point of philosophy courses, no bravery is required for dissent! Civil dissent is rewarded! Agreement is the death of philosophy, disagreement is its life's blood.)

"God created everything?" the professor asked. "Yes," the student replied. (The 'sir' part is removed: no college student in the 21st century addresses a college professor as 'sir' - which demonstrates that whoever it was that made up the original story never went to college. In addition, the use of 'sir' is just a pretense of 'respect' - it comes off as passive aggressive anger more than anything else.)

The professor answered, "Well then, here's a logical puzzle for you: If God created everything, then God created evil; Therefore, according to the principal that 'our works define who we are', 'God' is evil."

The student became silently enraged over his worldview being 'attacked'. He began to project out his feelings of inadequecy as smugness coming from the professor.

The student then said: "Can I ask you a question professor?"

"Of course," replied the professor. That's the point of philosophical discourse. (The writer of the original story clearly has little experience with a real college classroom. The whole point of a philosophy or theology course is to foster discussion.)

Student: Is there such thing as heat?"
Professor: Yes, the professor replies.
Student: "Is there such a thing as cold?"
Professor: "Yes, there's cold too."
Student: "No, there isn't"

The professor doesn't grin or frown or react with any emotion other than curiosity. After all, he's heard bad arguments like this for more years than the student has been alive. (The desire to see the professors 'smug smile wiped off his face' is just another projection of the feelings of inadequecy found in theists who aren't able to argue their own points well...)

The student continues. You can have lots of heat, even more heat, super-heat, mega-heat, white heat, a little heat or no heat but we don't have anything called 'cold'. We can hit 458 degrees below zero, which is no heat, but we can't go any further after that. There is no such thing as cold, otherwise we would be able to go colder than 458. You see, sir, cold is only a word we use to describe the absence of heat. We cannot measure cold. Heat we can measure in thermal units because heat is energy. Cold is not the opposite of heat, just the absence of it"

Professor: (Nodding his head in dismay, and working out how many times he's heard this bad logic by now. 100 times?). Do you remember the section in your workbook on semantic fallacies?

Student: ( gives a confused look a dog might make)

Professor: Let me give you a quick review. Both 'heat' and 'cold' are subjective terms... They are what the philosopher John Locke properly called "secondary qualities". The secondary qualities refer to how we humans experience a very real phenomena: the movement of atomic particles. The terms 'heat' and 'cold' refer to an interaction between human nervous systems and various speeds of atomic particles in their environment. So what we 'really' have is temperature.... the terms 'heat' and "cold' are merely subjective terms we use to denote our relative experience of temperature.

So your entire argument is specious. You have not 'proven' that 'cold' does not exist, or that 'cold' somehow exists without any ontological status, what you have done is shown that 'cold' is a subjective term. Take away the subjective concept, and the 'thing in itself', the temperature we are denoting as 'cold', still exists. Removing the term we use to reference the phenomena does not eradicate the phenomena.

Student: (a bit stunned) "Uh... Ok.... Well, is there such a thing as darkness, professor?"

Professor: You are still employing the same logical fallacy. Just with a different set of of secondary qualities.

Student: "So you say there is such a thing as darkness?"

Professor: "What I am telling you is that you are repeating the very same error. "Darkness" exists as a secondary quality.

Student: "You're wrong again. Darkness is not something, it is the absence of something. You can have low light, normal light, bright light, flashing light but if you have no light constantly you have nothing and it's called darkness, isn't it? That's the meaning we use to define the word. In reality, Darkness isn't. If it were, you would be able to make darkness darker and give me a jar of it. Can you give me a jar of darkness, professor?

Professor: Sure, right after you give me a jar of light. Seriously, "light and dark' are subjective terms we use to describe how we humans measure measure photons visually. The photons actually exist, the terms 'light' and 'dark' are just subjective evaluations, relative terms... having to do, again, with an interaction between our nervous systems and another phenomenon of nature - this time, photons. So again, doing away with a subjective term does not eradicate the actual phenomena itself - the photons. Nothing actually changes. If we humans tend to call 'x number of photons' 'dark' (while cats refer to it as 'bright enough for me&quotEye-wink those number of photons we denote as 'dark' exist, and they continue to exist even if we do away with the term 'dark.'

Do you get it now?

Student: (gives a look not unlike a 3 year old trying to work out quantum physics)

Professor: I see your still struggling with the fallacy hidden in your argument. But let's continue, perhaps you'll see it.

Student: Well, you are working on the premise of duality, the christian explains.

Professor: Actually, I've debunked that claim two times now. But carry on.

Student: "Well, you assume, for example, that there is a good God and a bad God. You are viewing the concept of God as something finite, something we can measure.

Professor: Be careful. If you want to place your god beyond the grasps of reason, logic, and science and make him 'unmeasurable', then you are left with nothing but a mystery of your own devising. So if you use this special plead your god beyond reason to solve the problem, you can't call your god moral either. You can't call 'him' anything. You can't say anything else about something that you yourself have defined as beyond reason other than that the term you've created is incoherent. So your solution is akin to treating dandruf by decapitation.

Student: (Gulps. Continues on, oblivious to what was just said) Sir, science cannot even explain a thought. It uses electricity and magnetism but has never seen, much less fully understood them.

Professor: You just said that science cannot explain a thought. I'm not even sure what you mean by that. I think what you mean to say is this: there remains many mysteries in neuroscience. Would you agree?

Student: Yes.

Professor: And, along the same line of thought, we accept that there are things like thoughts, or electricity or magnetism even though we have never seen them?

Student: Yes!

Professor: Recall the section in your textbook concerning fallacies of false presumption. Turn to the entry on 'Category error'. You'll recall that a category error occurs when an inappropriate measure is used in regards to an entity, such as asking someone what the color of a sound is... Asking someone to 'see' magnetism directly (and not just its effects) commits such an error. However, there is yet another error in your argument: your assumption that empircism or even science is based on 'real time observation' alone. This is false. Sight is not the sole means of knowing the world, nor is science merely the study of whatever we are currently looking at. We can use other senses to detect phenomena. And we can also examine their effects upon the world.

Furthermore, you are importing yet another erroneous presumption into the discussion: you are conflating the fact that science is incomplete with the implication that a lack of an answer from naturalism automatically means that your theistic assertion is correct. So you'll also want to review the section on 'arguing form ignorance.'

Do you have more to say?

Student: (The student, continues, mainly unfazed, due to the protection his shield of ignorance affords him.) .... Um....... to view death as the opposite of life is to be ignorant of the fact that death cannot exist as a substantive thing. Death is not the opposite of life, merely the absence of it"

Professor: You are really in love with this secondary quality fallacy, aren't you? You are again confusing a secondary quality with the phenomena in of itself. "Death" and "life" are subjective terms we use to describe a more fundamental phenomena - biology. The phenomena in question, however, does exist. Biological forms in various states exist. Doing away with the subjective term does not eradicate the existence of death.

Nonplussed, the young man continues: "Is there such a thing as immorality?"

Professor: (Reaches for an asprin in his desk) You're not going to again confuse a secondary quality for an atttribute, are you? Please... what can I do to help you see this problem?

Student: (Continues on, fueled by ideology and oblivious to reality) You see, immorality is merely the absence of morality. Is there such thing as injustice? No. Injustice is the absence of justice. Is there such a thing as evil?" The christian pauses. "Isn't evil the absence of good?"

Professor: So, if someone murders your mother tonight, nothing happened? There was just an absence of morality in your house? Wait, I forgot... she's not dead... she's just experiencing an absence of life, right?

Student: Uh.....

Professor: You're beginning to see that something is missing in your argument, aren't you? Here's what you're missing. You are confusing a secondary quality... a subjective term that we can use to describe a phenomena, for the phenomena itself. Perhaps you heard me mention this before? (The class erupts in laughter, the professor motions for them to stop laughing.) 'Immorality' is a descrptive term for a behavior. The terms are secondary, but the behaviors exist. So if you remove the secondary qualities, you do nothing to eradicate the real behavior that the terms only exist to describe in the first place. So by saying that 'immorality' is a lack of morality, you are not removing immoral intentions and behaviors, or the problem of immoral intentions and behaviors from existence, you are just removing the secondary attribute, the subjective term.

And notice how dishonest your argument is on yet another level... in that it speaks of morality and immorality devoid of behavior, but 'evil' exists as a behavior, evil is an intent to do harm and an act commited with such an intent.

By the way, are you really trying to imply that immorality or evil are merely subjective qualities?

Student: Gulp! (Reeling from the psychological blows to his corrupt worldview....) Have you ever observed evolution with your own eyes, professor?"

The professor soothes his aching forehead, and prepares for the 1 millionth time that he will be subjected to the 'can you see the wind' argument.

Professor: What an interesting turn this conversation has taken. Can I advise you to read Brofenbrenner's suggestion against arguing over subjects over which you are uninformed? It's in your textbook. Page 1.

Student: "Professor, since no one has ever observed the process of evolution at work and cannot even prove that this process is an on-going endeavor, are you not teaching your opinion, sir? Are you now not a scientist, but a priest?

Professor: Interesting indirect comment on the priesthood. But let's leave that aside... We do observe the process of evolution at work, for the process works at this very moment. As for the implication in your argument that one must 'be there' to observe a process at it occurs, surely you realize that we can infer the process through examining the evidence that these processes leave behind? In a sense, we are there when we observe artifacts.

Consider for example the science of astronomy. How do we know about super novas? Because we can observe diferrent supernovas in different stages of super nova, by observing their 'artifacts' in the night sky. The same stands for any historical science. Your mistake here is that you think science is merely 'real-time-observation'. This is a strawman of science. By your logic trees can't grow - after all, who's actually witnessed a tree growing?

Science is both direct and indirect observation... it also allows for inference. If, for the sake of consistency you were asked to follow your own rule, you'd have to concede that we have no evidence tree growth, or mountain formation - after all, I've never actually seen a seed grow into a tree, I've only seen it in stages.

Student: "But professor! You stated that science is the study of observed phenomena.

Professor: No, this is a strawman of what science is... Science is more than just real time observation, we also observe artifacts and make inferences. But continue....

Student: (Responds to this as a goat might respond to a book on calculus) May I give you an example of what I mean?"

Professor: Certainly.

Student: "Is there anyone in the class who has ever seen air, oxygen, molecules, atoms, the professor's brain?"

The class breaks out in laughter. The christian points towards professor, "Is there anyone here who has ever heard the professor's brain... felt the professor's brain, touched or smelt the professor's brain?" "No one appears to have done so", The christian shakes his head sadly. "It appears no one here has had any sensory perception of the professor's brain whatsoever. Well, according to the rules of empirical, stable, demonstrable protocol, science, I declare that the professor has no brain!"

(So much for the student's pretense of respect, clearly his goal is to ridicule).

Professor: You mean, according to your strawman view of science. I am glad that you are here in my class so that I can help you better understand what you criticize. Science is not merely 'looking' at things. Science is empirical, but also rational. We can make inferences from evidence of things that we do see, back to phenonema that we might not be able to directly see. Such as a functioning brain.

And one inference I can make from observing your behaviors here today is that you've wasted the money you've spent on your logic textbook so far this year. I strongly advise, for your own sake, that you crack open that book today, and start reading. From page 1.

Those who know the good, do the good. - Socrates

Books on atheism.

Vastet's picture

"theism is the absense of

"theism is the absense of thought"

Fixed.

Proud Canadian, Enlightened Atheist, Gaming God.

Definition of Evil

@Tanath - I actually have to disagree with you there.  Natural disasters do not have "morals", so therefore cannot perform "evil" acts.  Not everything is either "good" or "evil".  Some events are just simply events.  If someone gets hurt or killed, it is an unfortunate circumstance.  If a person gets mauled by a bear, the bear is not performing an "evil" act, it is simply acting on its nature. 

An "evil" act requires that the act be initiated by someone that can potentially have morals, and then acts against them.  But then, it is also a matter of perspective.  If I shoot someone in the head and kill them, is that an evil act?  What if that person was in the process of beating a person to death with a baseball bat?  What if the person that he was beating maliciously raped and killed his child? You see, "evil" is simply a matter of your perspective against someone else's.  We can probably all agree that stealing from someone or killing someone out of greed can be considered "evil", but those are just social conventions.  So, really, "evil" is simply a subjective term, not in any way an objective one.

Morality is not universal

What people think is moral is subject to time, place, education, social community, cognitive maturation and intellectual ability.  It is nowhere more fractured than it is between one religious group and another, or between one religious group and the supposedly same group a generation or a century apart.  Last century devout Christians in the American south argued that it was their god's intention that they own slaves.  Other Christians disagreed.   This century the Catholic church argues that it is their god's wish that people not use condoms.  Other Christians argue that this is deeply immoral, especially in AIDS torn Africa.  Some Christians argue that it is deeply immoral to surgically remove an unaware cell clump from a woman, even when the failure to do so will cause the agonizing death of the mother as well as the un conscious unaware clump of dividing cells.  Other Christians consider this failure to be extremely immoral.  And so on.
If there are any objective morals then they are very general and subject to situational ethics.  Thus it is not moral to kill members of one's own group, unless the group says they deserve to die, or they threaten the life of someone in the group, or the group wishes to make an example of them in the hope that it would teach other group members not to kill (which is incoherent, of course).  The same goes for lying.  It is generally not a good idea to lie to members of your group, unless you do so to protect the life or well-being of someone else in the group (but not your own life or well-being.)

If objective morality exists it is clear that religious people have no way of determining what it is with any certainty.