Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Problem of Evil

This is a very old theological problem dating as far back as Epicurus.  Philosophers and theologians have been weighing in on the issue ever since, and continuing right up to current times.  Stated simply, the question boils down to this:  How can an all-knowing, all-loving God allow so much pain and suffering?  

One of the marks of the end of childhood and innocence is learning of and understanding the sheer volume and extent of “evil” that befalls our fellow human beings on a daily basis.  We tend not to think about it on a regular basis (for good reason, says Freud) but all you have to do is quickly imagine people stabbed, beaten, tortured, killed, raped, burned, mutilated, or otherwise painfully made to suffer at the hands of another person.  We know this happens, and most people know that it happens a lot.  How much is a lot?  Well, the FBI says that just in the U.S., someone commits a violent crime against another person every 22 seconds.  Someone gets murdered every half hour or so.  A woman gets raped every 5 minutes.  For most people, this means that every single woman they know would get forcibly raped in the space of an afternoon.  I say this not to bum anyone out, but to impress just how serious a problem this is to a person asking how a loving God would allow this level of evil in the world.  If you want to seriously consider it, just take a minute to really think about the amount of violence and suffering, try to actually picture it in your mind even just happening to one person, and then expand that horrible feeling to the untold millions or even billions that have had worse than what you just imagined. We’re not talking about a few incidences here.  And this is not even considering the number of people who suffer and die due to “natural evil” like earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes.  Can we consider a God who knowingly and willingly allows His children to experience this evil a “good parent”?  I would argue that we cannot.  We hold all human parents to a higher standard than that, so why wouldn’t we hold God to at least the same standard as people, if not higher?

So what did philosophers think about this problem?  Let’s start with Augustine. 

Augustine was originally a Manichaean.  In this tradition, he believed that God was actually not all-powerful, but was locked in a constant battle with the Devil (or an Anti-God) who ceaselessly promoted evil and chaos.  When bad things happen or people commit evil deeds, it was the work of the Devil.  When good things happen or people live morally, it is the work of God.  This is a handy solution to the Problem of Evil, but it’s not very popular, as it completely relies on the belief that God has limits and vulnerabilities.  This does not sit well with the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition of God as an omnipotent, omniscient power.  So Augustine cast it aside and converted to Christianity in middle age.  Now he had to deal with the problem directly, and he came up with what is know as the Free Will Defense.  In a nutshell, this seeks to blame evil directly on us humans.  By exercising our free will in immoral or imperfect ways (and as a result of the original Bad Decision in the Garden of Eden), we have brought all the evil in the world upon ourselves.  There are two problems with this theory as I see it.  The first is that it is hard to find a link between someone thinking his friend’s wife is hot (just thinking it is a sin don’t forget) and tens of thousands of people drowning in a tsunami, which I imagine is a horrific way to die.  The Free Will Defense completely ignores the mass suffering caused by natural disasters.  The second issue is that it requires that God is not both all-powerful and all-loving, which as I understand is the entire point of the argument..  Even if God gave us free will to make our own choices, does that by itself completely abdicate him from his desire or responsibility to prevent unimaginable amounts of agony and suffering from befalling us as a people?  If a person makes bad financial decisions and is forced to declare bankruptcy, it is not too far of a stretch to imagine that person’s parent as saying “You brought this on yourself with your bad decisions, now deal with the consequences”.  That’s part of being an adult and the learning process, maybe.  But if the bad decision is to jump in front of a bus, would any parent in their right mind simply stand by and watch their child get splattered, saying “well it’s his own damn fault”?  That’s kind of shaky.  And if you take this one step further ala Boethius, it’s even less likely that a parent who exists outside of time and already knows all about the splattering would just let it happen.    
There is also the old standby, “God works in mysterious ways”.  This is basically a dumbed-down version of Leibniz’ Principle of Sufficient Reason.  The evil we have exists because in the grand master plan that we cannot possibly comprehend (being mere mortals and not God), this is the least amount of evil that can produce the desired end result.  We cannot know that end result, and we cannot know the reasoning behind the plan, because it would require perfect reasoning that only God can possibly possess.  So it just seems like there is a lot of evil in the world to us, because we don’t know any better.  Voltaire did not agree with this and neither do I.  In the face of senseless tragedy like the Newtown shooting, who can argue that there is some outcome that required dozens of elementary school students to be murdered?

So how about some modern philosophers?  There is an interesting theodicy  brought forth by Peter van Inwagen, which tells an alternate story of creation in which humans did evolve from primates, but via an instantaneous miracle by the hand of God.  One minute they were monkeys, the next minute they were humans. And in this evolved state, the original humans had superpowers to heal any disease, tame any animal just by looking at it, and sense impending natural disasters with a sort of built-in National Weather Service system, so as to escape to safety.  But God also gave them free will, and eventually they abused it for some reason and in doing so lost their union with God, and all their superpowers.  Now they were subject to disease, aging, earthquakes, lions and tigers.  No longer being in close contact with God, they fell back upon their genetic dispositions, which were apparently still somewhat animalistic, and “an inborn tendency to do evil” (see link below).  God is still portrayed as a loving God, for He did not simply leave us or destroy us (although he may or may not have flooded the entire planet), but instead he allowed humans who freely chose to follow his rules to be rescued.  In order to make it a free choice, he must allow suffering and evil so that we may know what it’s like to be apart from Him and want to cooperate.   This entire chain of reasoning seems like an elaborate version of “without evil we wouldn’t appreciate good”.  Although Pete gets points for creativity here, and at least he has come up with a relatively reasonable inclusion of evolution, I can’t say I agree with him either.  

So who do I think is most reasonable? Well, we recently read about Stephen Law.  Law has an argument turning on “plausibility of beliefs”, which asks the question of whether it is more plausible that God is all-powerful and all-good and still allows the level of suffering we see in the world, or that our idea of God is inaccurate.  He believes in the latter, and “allows” for the possibility that there is a God but he “has good days and bad days”.   In his view it is unreasonable to believe in God as the modern Christian tradition portrays Him.  This seems like the most sound idea to me.  If there is a “supreme being” that transcends our idea of biology, nature, and time, who are we to assume that we have any certainty about it’s motives or morality?  I don’t even think it’s possible for us to grasp the idea properly, as a consciousness that could exist on that level would be so far removed from every experience of reality that any human has had, that we can’t even imagine it.   To illustrate my point in human terms, consider how likely it would have been for  Epicurus to be strolling in his garden one day, thinking of writing a letter to his friend about the Problem of Evil so that he might hear back from him next month, and suddenly having a vision of me sitting in my lighted, heated home office, typing this paper on a "computer" (in and of itself unimaginable) that is wirelessly connected to every other computer on the planet, storing my words and ideas in the cloud using a Google Doc.  What are the odds that he had the capacity to even imagine this? So who are we to think we know a God?

Matt Mood, Section 14 Group 4

P.S. Here's the link to a really interesting albeit ridiculously long article from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (where I found van Inwagen):

1 comment:

  1. Very well put-together, Matt. And I love the image of Epicurus flashing on the vision of you at your PC. That would have been a moment! (His Garden pals would have been amazed to hear of it... or maybe would just have said "Far out!")