GILMORE -ROSENBERG DEBATE: Suffering, Morality and the Existence of God

September 27, 2016, on The Ohio State University Campus. Book published by the Warren Christian Apologetics Center (Vienna, WV); 2017; Ralph Gilmore: Ph. D (University of Tennessee), Professor of Bible and Philosophy at Freed-Hardeman University (Henderson, TN); Alexander Rosenberg: Ph. D (John Hopkins University), Professor of Philosophy, Duke University (Durham, NC)


Rosenberg’s First Affirmative. Rosenberg argues that suffering prevents one from believing in God. He gave a definition to what he meant: the state of undergoing pain, hardship, distress (5). He spoke of examples of suffering in humanity by other humans and from natural calamities. If God exists, then he had a reason for suffering’s experience. On the other hand, “the existence of suffering is overwhelming evidence, I think, that God does not exist” (9). Since Rosenberg thinks there is no good answer to the question about why suffering exists and is experienced, then it must be the case God does not because is to have a reason, a purpose. The lack of a sufficient explanation from Christians is evidence God does not exist (10-11). He knows this is not an iron-clad position, so he calls it probabilistic or, it’s probably the case God does not exist.

Rosenberg does address what he thinks are “cop-out” answers to what Christians say are reasons for suffering. That which he offered in chart form were flippant replies (I suppose) he heard from others (such as: God works in mysterious ways; we’re too feeble minded to understand God; all dogs go to heaven; God’s a sadist; animal suffering was a mistake).

Rosenberg does not believe man has free-will, thus his argument strikes at the free-will defense that Christians make. In other words, God created humans with free-will, and since humans make bad choices that end up causing much harm, what evil there is in the world (a result of bad choices) is not the fault of God, but of humanity. He believes there is no reconciliation between free-will, suffering and God’s existence. He gave an example of a math-quiz problem. A math-quiz scenario allows one to freely choose the answers given. If a wrong answer given is “incentivized” to prevent a wrong answer (that is, given an incentive to not freely choose the wrong answer), then why could God not incentivize man with free-will wherein he will always choose to do right, rather than the wrong, thus not bring evil into the world?

SUMMARY An atheist says, “I know God does not exist.” Rosenberg does not say this; this leaves him open to criticism (Gilmore exploits this opening). There is no logical argument with premise 1, premise 2, and therefore a conclusion that says, “therefore God does not exist.” Rosenberg offered questions, a semblance of a philosophical argument, a discussion on free-will, but he never gave an argument wherein the premises demanded the conclusion “God does not exist.”

Gilmore’s First Negative. After some introductory words, Gilmore calls out the atheist position as one of arrogance (a word he did not use), arrogant because the atheist said, in effect, “I have surveyed all the evidence, and I know there is no God!” Gilmore also briefly explains what atheists think is their best argument (an argument that Rosenberg did not make, though he came close). 1) God is omnipotent, 2) God is omniscient, 3) God is omnibenevolent, 4) Evil exists (18). Gilmore claims that suffering, as it is interpreted as evil, is not incompatible with the existence of an all-loving God who is powerful enough the eradicate evil.

Gilmore takes up the claim that if God has the qualities Christians declare, then, as Rosenberg asserts, it is perfectly reasonable for man to have free-will and God, at the same time, to eradicate evil and suffering wherein man does not need to experience it. Gilmore calls this nonsense (19). Gilmore defines how omnipotence is to be understood from a biblical perspective, that is, whatever can be done by an all-powerful being, God can do it. God, however, cannot create free-will beings without the possibility of those free-will beings choosing to hurt themselves. “…God cannot make a free being, in a physical world, without the possibility of suffering…” (19) unless he were to eliminate of the special characteristics of man that currently experiences physical and emotional pain. In this connection, Gilmore identifies three “wills” of God: 1) ideal will, 2) circumstantial will and 3) ultimate will of God.

Gilmore brings to the discussion the purpose of animals. He anticipated the question that would be asked of him, “Why consider the purpose of animal existence?” but I had much difficulty in gaining clarity from him in his answer to this. In fact, I had to study his chart (evidently put together by John Clayton) to gain what he desired for me to gain, for I did not read/hear it in his oral presentation (20-23). It seems to go like this: animals are associated with human characteristics, but this is mere fantasy. Second, animals do not feel pain as humans do because animals “…have no susceptive stimuli that can cause immediate protective reaction” in relation to pain. The pain they feel, however, does not correspond with the pain/experience of humans. Third, without the natural “predation” in the animal kingdom (that is, the predatory initiative of animals), the animal population could grow to such a number the animals would starve to death. Purpose associated with the animal kingdom, then, are as in the words Gilmore includes, the words of Thomas Warren, the purpose of the animal kingdom is toward man’s environment, “the ideal environment for ‘soul-making’” and this contributes to man’s moral development. After much effort at trying to understand, I think I see his point, but I can only imagine my “lostness” if I heard it orally!

Gilmore brings to the fore the lack of objective morality Rosenberg subscribes to; it is called “nice nihilism.” Gilmore demands his terms be defined, then identify how it could have come into existence, and why this should be accepted. Gilmore also disputes Rosenberg’s rejection of free-will having any relevance to the discussion, Gilmore insisting that it has everything to do with the discussion because without it there is no intentionality with decisions, thus no moral compass.

Gilmore gives attention to Rosenberg’s theory of the mind. Rosenberg does not believe in free-will, thus he does not (cannot) believe in intentionality. If there is no intent, then what is thought, said and done is determinism, and determinism can have nothing to do with right/wrong, with morality. Gilmore calls out Rosenberg by asking about his brain. Is the “brain” (the material mass of flesh) the mind, or is there something else? The “I” in a sentence (such as “I feel pain”) represents the person; Hume and Russell tried to eliminate the person (the ego, the I, the impression of self-existence), but they had no success. If Rosenberg is correct, then in his determinism, it can’t be said that he intentionality wrote a book.

Rosenberg’s Reply to Gilmore. Rosenberg demands that theism must provide a rationale for how suffering is compatible with and all-powerful, all-knowing and benevolent God. “Unless I can understand how that happened, I cannot accept the idea that a loving God would create the kind of suffering which we see manifest around us…” (32). Rosenberg disputes Gilmore, but does so by assertion, not proving or supporting his assertion. In his mind, since God is so capable as theism argues, He could have employed a different set of Laws that govern humanity than the ones that currently do; if that is so, then He could have employed a set of Laws wherein free-will is compatible with a no-possibility-of-suffering world. Rosenberg also gave him explanation for “the origin of morality,” which he calls altruism. He admits difficulty in understanding why it exists, but ultimately says we could not exist if it did not. In other words, that has to be it: it was brought into existence for self-preservation purposes. “We never would have survived starting at the bottom of the food chain, let alone find our way within 100,000 years at the top of the food chain, without human cooperation, without being nice to one another.”

Gilmore’s Response to Rosenberg. Gilmore speaks about suffering in relation to pain-receptors, and that suffering benefits us because it molds/shapes us in learning to live in this current environment. Free-will is part of this learning process (pages 35-41 develop these thoughts). God had only two choices in the creation of man: 1 create with free-will, 2) create without free-will. When God created man with free-will, He created knowing it was a “two-edged” sword. The gift given can be utilized to bite the giver of the gift (if you will). With free-will, the possibility of evil exists. The evil that does exists is not in catastrophes of nature, but in sin; sin is the only intrinsic evil that exists. Sin is evil because it adversely affects relationship-building, especially with God. the world in which we live, a world that was created without anything evil within, but with the possibility of evil to exist (with free-will creatures) is “as good as any possible world” for man to live (p. 39).

Gilmore’s Negative Rejoinder. Gilmore summarizes his presentation and Rosenberg’s philosophical failings (in principle).

Rosenberg’s Affirmative Rejoinder. Rosenberg asked many questions, spoke about Gilmore’s failing to give an adequate answer to why man feels pain when, in his opinion, God could have created man without feeling pain. “… the job of the theist is to explain why God made evil actual” (p. 45). The remaining moment of Rosenberg’s rejoinder was in introducing normative ethics and meta-ethics in relation to theistic debates.

SUMMARY to this point: Rosenberg spoke of his desire to have explanation of compatibility for the existence of evil with a traditional concept of an all-powerful God. He never did set forth an argument that demanded the conclusion “thus, God does not exist.” Gilmore gave explanation, a thorough one, but it was not an explanation Rosenberg accepted, though he could not give a counter-reply to why Gilmore’s answer was not adequate (indicative of the point “evidence does not matter” when a position is desired).

Gilmore’s First Affirmative. He starts out describing his opponent as a methodological atheist instead of an epistemological atheist. The latter demands that he (Rosenberg) give explanation to all the 300 million species that exist, something Rosenberg can’t do. Since Holy Spirit is not eh latter, then he must be the former. Building on this, Gilmore puts forth an argument (a syllogism): 1) Either Theism or Physicalism (materialism), 2) Physicalism can’t be sustained, 3) thus, Theism. Gilmore gave four reasons why this argument can be sustained, building mostly on the point of objective morality. “Piggy-backing” this, he offers, in his second main argument, another argument built on morality, highlighting the fact that one such as Rosenberg is in no position to judge with a moral standard when he has no moral standard. The argument: 1) if there is a universal moral standard, then theism is true. 2) there is a universal moral law. 3) thus, theism is true. Gilmore gives two additional, complementary arguments along similar lines (p. 50). The remainder of his portion of this affirmative is building the case for an objective morality and how the atheist can’t do so, but he tries, just to same, to live as if there is one. Thus, God exist. Gilmore, in my mind did a very good job; yes, he got into the use of philosophical jargon, but I did not find this troubling like, perhaps, most did.

Rosenberg’s First Negative. Rosenberg tries to distance himself from the traditional suffering/morality arguments atheists put forth, but then proceeds to argue about arbitrariness of God making a command and its relation to morality. He poses an “argument’s sake” 11th command. Did God give this command because it was morally right, or did God give this command because He declared it right? If the latter, then the morally right is based on God’s fiat, God’s decree.  Rosenberg thinks this is an “ungetoverable” dilemma for the theist. He concludes from this that morality exists apart from anything associated with God (p. 64). Rosenberg anticipate the response to his remarks by addressing the “Divine Command” theory, which is the nature of God is such that nothing radiates from His being that is morally wrong, “God’s commands are the morally right ones because of his very essence or nature” (p. 64). On pages 66 through the end of his speech (p. 68), Rosenberg explains “nice nihilism,” (though he calls himself a utilitarian). It is nice because man is a cooperative, altruistic being, which accords well with survival in the desert of the African Savannah.

Gilmore’s Second Affirmative. Gilmore begins by asking questions with unstated answers about the nature of suffering and if there is any warrant to the infliction of it (on occasion). Then he begins to address the age-old Euthyphro problem Rosenberg brought up, asserting that Rosenberg believes Plato proved religion and scientism face the same problem. I don’t think he explicated very well here. Nevertheless, Gilmore then says, “God is who he is, because he is,” stated with much emphasis, meaning that God’s attributes and existence are co-eternally bound. Moreover, Euthyphro dealt with polytheism, not monotheism. Gilmore also declared he is not a “divine-command” theorist, which means if God declared something, that something is morally right; if this is so, then God, in an arbitrary way set forth that which is moral, even the point of commanding another to kill his son! The ring of arbitrariness is social-Darwinism, which can’t account for one single moral fact. Gilmore again emphasized the nature of morality is not in commands, but in the nature of God. He then explicates the nature of holiness in relation to God’s wrath which has a goal that one can see/experience in the ultimate respect. Not so with utilitarianism because it’s subjective in nature, nothing transcendent about it. He finishes his portion of this affirmative, which was nothing but a reply to Rosenberg’s first negative, with a discussion of RNA, DNA and how Rosenberg declared evolution a mess!

Rosenberg’s Second Negative. Rosenberg summarized Gilmore’s last speech, but said it amounted to little because the terms and expressions used have no meanings. For instance, what does this mean: God is who he is, because he is? Moreover, as far as Rosenberg is concerned, neither does the idea of God’s existence and essence being eternally bound have meaning. Rosenberg said he was not going to address what he called “cheap shots” at Christian theist and difficult passages of the Old Testament, that is, he was not going to address it as it pertained to this current debate. He then spent the remainder of his time giving attention to science, and evolution and the “god of the gaps.”  He addressed the phrase “survival of the fittest” having no existence in Darwin’s book, though in the very next paragraph, he spoke of the idea behind its coinage, without using the term. Rosenberg called out Gilmore’s use of a stat, saying that he was wrong, though to later follow that Gilmore was right in the use of something else he said. In all this that was said, there was no denial of Gilmore’s speech, but only explanation of methodology.

Rosenberg’s Negative Rejoinder. His last speech of the occasion was simply to remind people that Gilmore never gave an adequate response to the Euthyphro problem. If one is going to argue the existence of moral suffering implies the absolute nature of moral law, which implies God’s existence, then theists need to “…what it is about God and about the moral laws that so bind them together…” and Rosenberg said Gilmore failed in this.

Gilmore’s Affirmative Rejoinder. Gilmore presented his main argument in chart form again, maintaining that he did prove that God has existence because “physicalism” (materialism) can’t be sustained. Since Rosenberg’s perspective can’t be sustained, the only alternative is God (without regard to whether one can adequately explain this or that). Also, with physicalism, there is no moral source, thus no objective, absolute moral right/wrong.

LAST IMPRESSIONS: From a biased perspective, Ralph Gilmore was more than capable of handling the arguments set forth by the atheistic college professor. The upside of the debate, in my view, was Gilmore’s logical arguments that Rosenberg did not address directly because, I suppose, Rosenberg could (would) not. The thrust of the debate was on morality, a position the atheists have much trouble dealing with; try as they might to thrust the Euthyphro argument against theists, the trouble lands in the lap of the atheist to even determine what is moral or not. The downside of the debate was in the philosophical terms and ideas expressed; most people without some training in this area would be lost. As I listened to some who went to the debate, this is exactly what was expressed. I thought both participants carried themselves well (if one can interpret the words on a page accurately), neither descended into disparagement. I thought Rosenberg seemed to be a worthy opponent.