What are the chances that God is actually good?

Philosophy professor James Sterba revives a very old argument.

What are the chances that God is actually good?
Photo by Motoki Tonn on Unsplash
  • In his book, Is a Good God Logically Possible?, James Sterba investigates the role of evil.
  • Sterba contends that if God is all-powerful then he'd be able to stop evil from occurring in the world.
  • God's inability (or unwillingness) to stop evil should make us question his role, or even his existence.

Why does God allow evil to happen? This question has been at the heart of Western religious philosophy since the dawn of monotheism. The very term and concept of God has long divided humans. Is he the first mover? Beyond definition, as many have argued? If God is all-powerful and humans are incapable of even defining him—I'm using "him" out of convenience, as "it" would be more appropriate in this case; a gendered deity is quite definable—why are so many certain they recognize his moral standing? Given how many sects of religions exist, how can so many people be so wrong?

If we recognize that evil exists (a hard point to dispute), and we also believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient, then we are granting this deity—to be clear, we're discussing the Abrahamic god—the power of knowing when evil exists and an ability to eliminate it. If God is incapable of stopping evil he is not all-powerful. If he is capable of stopping evil but chooses not to, well, we've got an evil God on our hands.

The latest thinker to tackle this unnerving question is James Sterba, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame and author of the book, Is a Good God Logically Possible? While many forms of evil can be discussed in this context, Sterba builds his argument in one specific domain, as he recently explained.

"I'm thinking about moral evil. This is the evil that human beings do. And I'm not thinking about all the evil of a particular action. I'm only worried about the external consequences. This is the part of the evil action that I think God gets in trouble about."

To highlight his reasoning, Sterba uses the example of homicide. A man gets a gun, loads it, aims, and pulls the trigger. The speeding bullet is the consequence of an idea: he wants to murder someone. Sterba does not concern himself with God's role in the internal process that led to the purchase and usage of that gun. Thinking, he claims, is for man alone. He questions why God would not have stopped the external consequence of the shooting. He's not looking for this deity to play the role of thought police, but to step in as actual police would.

A young boy carrying a placard in London's Trafalgar Square which says, 'Prepare to Meet Thy God'.

Photo by Fox Photos/Getty Images

If God is unable or unwilling to stop the external consequences of evil—while good and evil can be culturally relative terms, murder is universally recognized as being in the red—then the implications, to the religious at least, would equate to blasphemy.

"If there's all this evil in the world, maybe God can't prevent it. Then he's still all powerful, he just logically can't prevent it. The problem there is it turns out that God would be less powerful than we are because we can prevent lots of evil. Now if God is stuck in a logical possibility while we're only stuck in a causal one, then he's so much less powerful than us. The traditional God can't be less powerful than we are."

While this discussion is often relegated to religious philosophy, we regularly witness the effects. Sterba mentions the Pauline principle, that "one should never do evil so that good may come." Murdering a doctor that provides abortions, a platform accepted by extreme religious conservatives, falls into this category. We can place the record number of migrant children held in detention centers in 2019, nearly 70,000, because their imprisonment supposedly saves American jobs, or keeps brown people out, or this week's excuse du jour in that category as well.

Sterba says that a religion that purports to champion charity and poverty should not be making a utilitarian argument when at root its adherents should be thinking about not doing evil. Doing evil for a supposed later good is not, by its very nature, a charitable act.

"In traditional religious views, utilitarianism is a horrible thing. Trying to maximize utilitarianism is a bad way of thinking about things. You should be thinking about not doing evil and you should be worrying about intention."

Sterba invokes the Doctrine of Double Effect, citing the famous ethical dilemma known as the Trolley problem. A speeding trolly is about to kill five people. You're standing on a bridge and can pull a lever to veer the car to another track and only kill one. In most studies, five to one is easy for people to grapple with—except when they are asked to physically pull the lever, that is. Regardless, the tradeoff is less evil thanks to the hands of a human.

Sterba says this dilemma works in humans but not God. If God is truly powerful, "he's never stuck in allowing evil to happen. We sometimes are stuck if we're trying to do some good, we're allowing evil to happen, God could always, at the level of external action, stop the evil of all bad actions."

God, he continues, should not be causally or logically unable to stop evil, if he so chooses.

"Either he's not done it because he's an evil god—that's not a helpful result—or he's not done it because he's not very powerful, maybe even less powerful than us."

While Sterba focuses on moral evil, he entertains nature as well. Take climate change. Beyond the acceleration of environmental catastrophes, the planet has never actually been completely hospitable to humans. Natural disasters have always occurred; our species has nearly been wiped out in past eras. Why would an all-powerful god not make this planet more amenable to our survival if we're really his chosen species?

There might never be answers to such questions given the contentious nature of this discussion. While Sterba goes to great philosophical lengths to contemplate the problem of evil, he also grounds his thinking in the practical and applicable. Regardless of your religious belief (or non-belief), it behooves everyone to remember that when it comes to moral evil, we are all empowered to play a beneficent, or evil, role. As he puts it,

"Even if we think God is behind everything, we should do all we can."

Amen.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
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A scene from the 1996 Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!"

Credit: "Mars Attacks!" / Warner Bros
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