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11. Is Evil in the World Simply the Absence of Good?

Christian Michael Egnor argues for that view. Then he and atheist Matt Dillahunty clash over whether a cause can be outside of time

In the “Does God exist?” debate between theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty (September 17, 2021), we are now looking at the nature of good, as well as the problem of evil. Also, can change be outside of time?

Readers may recall that the debate opened with Egnor explaining why, as former atheist, he became a theist. Then Dillahunty explained why, as a former theist, he became an atheist. Michael Egnor then made his opening argument, offering ten proofs for the existence of God. Matt Dillahunty responded in his own opening argument that the propositions were all unfalsifiable. When, in Section 4, it was Egnor’s turn to rebut Dillahunty, Dillahunty was not easily able to recall Aquinas’s First Way (the first logical argument for the existence of God). Then, turning to the origin of the universe, Egnor challenged Dillahunty on the fact, accepted in science, that our universe began in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down). He accused Dillahunty of using science as “a crutch” for his atheism. Then they discussed the Second Oldest Question (after “Why is there something rather than nothing?”) If there is a God, why is there evil?

And then, what is the true origin of our sense of morality? Besides, what if Dillahunty isn’t really an atheist anyway? Egnor has come to doubt that. Egnor and Dillahunty then took questions.

And now, another perennial question came up again from the audience: Why is there evil?

A partial transcript, notes, and links to all previous portions of the debate follow:

Arjuna [podcast host]: Question for both. If indeed God is indirectly or even directly responsible for evil/harm — that, if nothing else, he allowed man to mess up — best guess as to why from your perspective.

Michael Egnor: So why does God allow evil?

Matt Dillahunty: It’s easy for me. He didn’t, but go ahead. [01:45:30]

Michael Egnor: The Thomistic understanding of evil is that it’s an absence of good. It’s not a thing that exists independently in itself. It’s a deficit of goodness. God’s creation necessarily fall short of goodness because if he created something perfectly good, He would just be creating himself. So all of creation necessarily has some evil in it because it’s not perfect. It’s not God. I believe that God allows evil to accomplish good through it. [01:46:00]

One burning tea candle stands apart from a group of non-burning gray dark candles: concept of separation, estrangement, loneliness.

That good can be difficult to see, but of course, we have a very small horizon that we’re able to see. But I believe that evil is allowed, in part, to allow free human agency — to allow us to act in the image of God in the sense of being active agents with free will and that God allows natural evil as a way of challenging us, as a way of giving us burdens to bear, which builds character. It’s a tough thing. I’m not saying I like it, but I think that is a reasonable explanation for the existence of evil along with God’s existence. [01:47:00]

Note: Evil as the privation (absence) of good is a traditional philosophical position: “In the neo-Platonic tradition, from Plato, through Plotinus, and from there integrated into mainstream Christian and Islamic theology, good is the only true reality, and evil is just the absence of good, just as darkness is the absence of light, and cold is the absence of heat.” – Stack Exchange

Arjuna: For Michael Egnor. On my previous question, couldn’t I simply communicate what I meant by justice and mercy to you and then you would know what I would mean by justice and mercy? I’m not sure I understand.

Michael Egnor: Well, again, I think that abstract things like justice or mercy and mathematics are all things that don’t have real physical instantiation in the world but are not just figments of our imagination.

They’re not just figments in our minds because, if they were, we couldn’t talk about them with other people — because other people don’t have access to our minds. There is some reality to them independently. Of course, that’s the Augustinian argument for the existence of God, that those universal concepts exist in God’s mind. [01:47:30]

Note: This question revisits the debate between realism and nominalism (see Note here). Realists believe that concepts like honesty or the square root of 5 are real, even though they are abstract. Nominalists would say that they are only words for which we agree, roughly or specifically, on a meaning.

Arjuna: Next question at the Super Chat. Mike, you said that simultaneous change can occur outside of time but that doesn’t make sense because simultaneous refers to a single point in time.

Michael Egnor: That’s a very good point. Change can’t occur outside of time. Change depends on time.

Matt…! Somebody has to give Matt some blood pressure medication, I tell you…

So change itself is something that is within time. Causation, however, can initiate outside of time. But the first cause does not have to be an entity in time. In fact, it can’t be an entity in time because if it’s in time, then it’s not the first cause. It’s in a network of causes. [01:48:30]

Twisted clock face. Time concept

Matt Dillahunty: I’d recommend maybe not making medical declarations about what kind of medication I need because when I talked about change earlier, what I was saying was that a causal chain requires time, that change requires time and you fought me on it, and now, you’re saying it. I already knew about concurrent change. [01:49:00]

Michael Egnor: I’m saying that the first cause does not have to be in time…

Matt Dillahunty: Yes, I am aware of that and I was aware of the special meaning that you go to.

Michael Egnor: … And that the Aristotelian and Thomistic understanding of change…

Matt Dillahunty: It’s fine. People can rewind it and see if I was actually correct and whether you actually came around to agreeing with me. It’s fine. They can rewind. [01:49:30]

Next: From a questioner: How can God be both just and merciful?

The complete debate, with transcripts and notes:

Two chess knights facing away from each other
  1. Debate: Former atheist neurosurgeon vs. former Christian activist. At Theology Unleashed, each gets a chance to state his case and interrogate the other. In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and broadcaster Matt Dillahunty clash over the existence of God.
  2. A neurosurgeon’s ten proofs for the existence of God. First, how did a medic, formerly an atheist, who cuts open people’s brains for a living, come to be sure there is irrefutable proof for God? In a lively debate at Theology Unleashed, Michael Egnor and Matt Dillahunty clash over “Does God exist?” Egnor starts off.
  3. Atheist Dillahunty spots fallacies in Christian Egnor’s views. “My position is that it’s unacceptable to believe something if the available evidence does not support it.” Dillahunty: We can’t conclusively disprove an unfalsifiable proposition. And that is what most “God” definitions, at least as far as I can tell, are.
  4. Egnor now tries to find out what Dillahunty actually knows… About philosophical arguments for the existence of God, as he begins a rebuttal. Atheist Dillahunty appears unable to recall the philosophical arguments for God’s existence, which poses a challenge for Egnor in rebutting him.
  5. Egnor, Dillahunty dispute the basic causes behind the universe. In a peppery exchange, Egnor argues that proofs of God’s existence follow the same logical structure as proofs in science. If the universe begins in a singularity (where Einstein’s equations break down), what lies behind it? Egnor challenges Dillahunty on that.
  6. Is Matt Dillahunty using science as a crutch for his atheism? That’s neurosurgeon Michael Egnor’s accusation in this third part of the debate, which features a continued discussion of singularities, where conventional “laws of nature” break down.
    If the “supernatural” means “outside of conventional nature,” Michael Egnor argues, science routinely accepts it, based on evidence.
  7. Dillahunty asks 2nd oldest question: If God exists, why evil? In the debate between Christian neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty, the question of raping a baby was bound to arise.
    Egnor argues that there is an objective moral law against such acts; Dillahunty argues, no, it is all just human judgment.
  8. Does morality really exist? If so, does it come from God? Matt Dillahunty now challenges Michael Egnor: There is no way to know whether a moral doctrine represents any reality apart from belief. Michael Egnor insists that a moral law exists independently of varying opinions. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, that has always been the traditional view worldwide.
  9. Michael Egnor explains why Matt Dillahunty is not an atheist. Not really, anyway, Egnor insists, because he keeps invoking a moral standard that can’t exist if materialist atheism is true. Egnor: I’ve encountered few people who demand as much fairness for themselves as atheists. They don’t live like atheists. They live like theists.
  10. Christian Egnor and atheist Dillahunty now take questions… For example, “ What is Mr. Egnor’s best evidence of any god that would make me believe?” Key questions turned on whether abstractions like “right” or wrong “wrong” represent realities. It’s the perennial realism vs. nominalism question again.
  11. Is evil in the world simply the absence of good? Christian Michael Egnor argues for that view. Then he and atheist Matt Dillahunty clash over whether a cause can be outside of time. Many traditional philosophers have held that evil is the absence of good in the same way that darkness is the absence of light. It has no independent existence.
  12. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: How can God be both just and merciful? After atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty explains his view of morality, an audience member asks neurosurgeon Michael Egnor to explain how a just God can show mercy. Under what circumstances, a debate watcher asks, would it not be contradictory to show both justice and mercy?
  13. Egnor vs. Dillahunty: Are singularities a part of science? Also, an audience member asks the debaters: Does atheism make better predictions than theism? Dillahunty denies that atheism is a single position; Egnor responds that that is a suspect claim because atheist positions are quite predictable.
  14. Debate: Is morality a mere emotion that we project on others? Theist neurosurgeon Michael Egnor and atheist broadcaster Matt Dillahunty continue their conversation about basic issues at Theology Unleashed. Michael Egnor argues that God created the universe, imperfect in relation to himself, out of an excess of love — perhaps so that we all have some type of being.
  15. Debate: How can a cause and effect occur at the same time?? In the broken window analogy, the brick becomes a cause simultaneously with the shattered glass becoming an effect. In the wrap-up, Egnor restates that atheism is not really an argument, just ignorance, and Dillahunty restates that Egnor was attacking him personally.

You may also wish to read these pieces by Michael Egnor:

Science can and does point to God’s existence. Michael Egnor: Natural science is not at all methodologically naturalist — it routinely points to causes outside of nature. If we are to understand natural effects, we must be open to all kinds of causes, including causes that transcend nature.

The Divine Hiddenness argument against God’s existence = nonsense. God in Himself is immeasurably greater than we are, and He transcends all human knowledge. A God with whom we do not struggle — who is not in some substantial and painful way hidden to us — is not God but is a mere figment of our imagination.

Atheist Claims about logical fallacies often just mean: Shut Up! In the recent debate, Matt Dillahunty accuses theists of “the fallacy of the argument from personal incredulity” because we examine his claims and find them incredible. What atheists fear most is having to explain themselves, and the invocation of fictitious “fallacies” is one of their favorite ways to evade scrutiny.

Theists vs. atheists: Which group has the burden of proof? Because Dillahunty refuses to debate me again, I’ll address his claim that atheists have no burden of proof in the debate over God’s existence in this post. Both atheists and theists make positive statements about the nature of the universe. If atheists shun the ensuing burden of proof, it should count against them.


Atheist spokesman Matt Dillahunty refuses to debate me again Although he has said that he finds debates “incredibly valuable,” he is — despite much urging — making an exception in this case. Why? For millennia, theists have thought meticulously about God’s existence. New Atheists merely deny any need to make a case. That’s partly why I dumped atheism.

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11. Is Evil in the World Simply the Absence of Good?