17 December 2011

Letters to a Doubting Thomas | The problem of evil

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This is part of a series of posts in response to "Letters to a Doubting Thomas" C. Stephen Layman.

Chapters seven and eight focus on the problem of evil. This is probably one of the most discussed objections to theism ever. Zach and Thomas begin by discussion the differences between natural (the result of inanimate causes/events) and moral (the result of some human willed event) suffering as well as definitions for suffering:
--Suffering is a very unpleasant conscious state.
-- Suffering comes in both mental and physical forms. For example, intense anxiety is a form of mental suffering; and the long-lasting pain common in diseases such as cancer is a form of physical suffering.
-- Because suffering is a conscious state, many types of entities cannot suffer. For example, I assume that rocks and plants cannot suffer because they lack the sort of conscious awareness suffering involves.
-- Suffering comes in degrees. For example, suffering can be trying, intense, unbearable, etc.

So far, so good. Next, Zach launches into the free will defense. In essence, god created us wholly free in order to grant us morally significant actions. It isn't saying much to choose to live for god if choosing to sin isn't even attractive. Thomas objects that god essentially put is in a room full of candy and then complained because we ate candy, and brought in the parent/child analogy for god. This came up in the last post on free will. Zach responds:
Parents are procreators, not creators, and there's a big difference. A Creator must determine the basic structure of the created realm, including the fundamental sorts of options to make available to free creatures. No one else is in a position to do that. Human parents lack the requisite power and knowledge. The God-parent analogy is useful, but it is misused if it is taken to mean that God has precisely the same responsibilities a human parent has.

This is an interesting response. I believe what Layman is getting at is that god set up a universe with good/evil options in order to grant us free will. Parents only enter the game as it already exists and make choices within it. Unfortunately, I see this as conflicting with the idea of miracles. While Zach/Layman never brings this up in the book, it is a widely used apologetic argument, especially in favor of Christianity. If god can intervene against the rules of the game he created, it becomes precarious to explain why god doesn't intervene most of the time. This, again, brings in the assumption that we know that a mega-human type being invented the rules of the free willed universe and that it's responsibilities aren't anything like those of a parent. In fact, god is somewhat of the ultimate parent -- responsible for our existence in the first place, supposedly! If that doesn't merit some care and looking after of inferior, sin-prone creatures... I don't know what does!

The other issue with this is assuming that significance only matters when compared to negative integers along the number line. Why can't we view saintliness in comparison to lukewarmness? Can being a good husband only be compared to adultery or murder? How about couch-potato, apathetic husband vs. science-museum/anniversary-remembering/dinner cooking super-dad? Thus, I can conceive of a world in which evils don't exist like they do (or are't attractive) and in which there is still a spectrum of responses to god.

Zach puts the free will defense forth very succinctly here:
Second, the suggestion that we could have as much meaning or significance in our lives as we actually do without certain types of wickedness, such as genocide, is problematic. If there were no genocide, no doubt we would be discussing some other example of wickedness, such as murder or rape. And if murder and rape were beyond human capability, I suspect we would be discussing still other forms of wickedness. Some humans would probably be satisfied with a situation in which the consequences of our acts would be trivial; but such a world would pale in significance to the world we find ourselves in—a world full of drama, in which acts have enormous significance—significance that is partly a function of their consequences.

A world with less significance has its attractions, because such a world contains fewer risks. But I believe it remains unsurprising that we find ourselves in a situation in which acts have enormous significance—assuming that God exists. Such a world has many risks, but it is also replete with meaning. What we do—and do not do—really counts for something.

This is quite difficult for me to swallow. In essence, the more massively harmful humans can be, the more reason we have to suspect that god really, really, really created something special when he formed humans. That just rubs me the wrong way. Why not make the world even more morally significant. Make a world in which it's massively easy to kill someone and not get caught. Or give everyone a world annihilation button to tempt them whenever they get really angry at humanity. Or give us psychic powers to harm others whenever we think bad thoughts (how's that for some thought crime?). In reality, we have no predictive power either way. We only have the world we have and thus can't say whether things could be different one way or the other, or what that would imply about the world. Viewing these types of things from the comfort of our homes can be quite sterile. Perhaps we should ask those who are the victims of moral evils if they would prefer to have slightly less morally significant choices and to have been spared some harm. If the world were 1/100th less morally significant and heaven were still the reward... would you choose such a world?

Zach also brings forth a hinting at the soul-building defense:
The significance of intense suffering must be transformed by the role it plays in one's life as a whole, as an ugly splotch of color in an impressionist painting may add to the beauty of the whole painting.

I won't really address this as it can be countered with gratuitous evils in which no apparent soul building results (infants killed during birth, young children raped and murdered, animal suffering, etc.). That quote is immediately followed by what I'll call the "catch all:"
Let me make a suggestion and get your response. I assume that an almighty being is able to raise creatures from the dead; thus, life after death is possible, from the standpoint of Theism. Indeed, life after death is probable, from the standpoint of Theism, at least in part because divine love will not give wickedness the last word. A loving God seeks the fulfillment of his creatures. And from the standpoint of Theism, the only thing that can prevent the fulfillment of an individual creature in the long run, I take it, is the individual's free rejection of divine love.


[The afterlife] provides an assurance that those whose lives are wrecked by wickedness in this earthly life will have opportunities to reclaim the fulfillment denied them. Beyond this, [the afterlife] provides for the possibility that God may have some purposes for each person that are not (or cannot) be fulfilled prior to death, in which case all persons would have a life after death.

We now postulate a hypothetical realm in which the dead can live again to cover for any apparent injustices during earthly life. I admit that this is possible, but I see no reason to think it's probable. It just seems convenient and thus it's used to sweep the problem under the carpet. In any case, the two move on to discuss natural evil. Zach brings forth that natural evils are a reasonably large cause for the formation of human societies at all and thus their absence would reduce the moral capacity of humans. Furthermore, he lists a number of professions as existing only in response to natural evils. Thus, they serve a benefit. Let's imagine risk of famine or shortage of other natural resources wasn't an issue. Couldn't people flourish via hobbies or art? Heck, if food wasn't scarce at all (as in, plentiful everywhere) or you didn't need shelter from storms and the environment... why would you need to work at all? My house and eating are the two reasons I have to work. I'm a bit aghast that Layman would take this approach:
So far I have emphasized the connection between significance, work, and natural evil. I am not suggesting that our lives would be insignificant without natural evil. But I am pointing out that we humans often find great significance in the work we do, and the work we do is usually linked to some natural evil, so the work would not be needed if the natural evil (or threat thereof) were absent. And I suggest that the kind of significance humans achieve in their working lives is a very good thing.

This, again, strikes me as sterile talk. We're talking about natural evils as simply those things our jobs seek to remedy: food shortages, cures for diseases, how to tap into natural resources. We're forgetting things like tsunamis, earthquakes, and hurricanes. You know, unpredictable, massive killers of human beings. Is the satisfaction we take in our jobs in trying to solve things like world hunger or AIDS worth killing off that many unsuspecting people at once?

Zach and Thomas move on to animal suffering. Zach essentially posits the same two responses: animals are granted the ability to take part in the "drama of nature," and there might be an afterlife for animals. Forgive me if I'm not really impressed by these answers.

Chapter eight moves on to discuss naturalism and evil. I felt a bit cheated by this chapter; the following quote illustrates why:
Recall that hurricanes, viruses, earthquakes, etc., do not count as natural evils; it's the suffering (and loss) these natural events bring about for sentient beings that counts as natural evil. But does Basic Naturalism lead us to expect the presence of sentient beings? No. As we saw in our discussion of the Cosmological Argument, Basic Naturalism does not even lead us to expect the presence of contingent beings, let alone a life-supporting universe and conscious living things. And if Basic Naturalism does not lead us to expect conscious living things, then it does not lead us to expect any suffering (or loss) at all. Hence, Basic Naturalism does not lead us to expect any natural evil.

In other words, Zach has piggybacked on an earlier chapter and now suggests that since we don't have any reason to expect that humans (contingent beings) would even exist at all, naturalism doesn't predict any evils whatsoever. While I get the point, forgive me if I think it's a tad more reasonable to start with the knowledge that humans clearly do exist, and then ask whether we should be surprised that nature appears to be completely ignorant of such beings' existence. From here, the two, in my opinion, digress heavily into the moral argument even though it will be dealt with in the next chapter. Zach attempts another piggyback move, claiming that moral evil is also not explained by naturalism because morality presupposes the existence of moral capacities, which are only existent with free will, which is only predicted by theism. Thus, again, we have a reused argument that Zach uses to suggest that naturalism also can't explain the existence of moral evil because there's no non-theistic moral standard to judge it by and without free will, humans aren't really moral.

I think this would have benefited by examining apparent evils in light of humans evolved primates. Would our tendencies to commit evil that surround hoarding of goods, reproduction, and territory claims be explained better by our existence as an animal vs. an en-souled part human/part divine creature? In any case, hopefully you understand why I thought this chapter was cheating a bit. It's also another return to a flaw I pointed out in the book earlier. It evaluates everything in light of Zach's picture of naturalism rather than simply looking at whether theism paints a coherent explanation or not. The problem of evil is obviously a big one, otherwise it would have gone away by now. While I realize there are explanations like the free will defense and soul building theodicies, in the end, I think most humans would find these unsatisfactory. Do we really think this is the absolutely best possible world? Not one act of evil could have been prevented while still maintaining morally significant action/free will? One less instance of rape or torture would have led to an overall decrease in world quality?

We just can't know this, and thus I find these types of theodicies insufficient. They presuppose that god knows best, only to assert that this really is the best world we could have expected. Rather than pick on naturalism because it can't explain the origin of the universe (yet) or what free will is (yet) and thus can't explain sentient life (natural evil) or morally significant choices (moral evil) seems cheap. Just compare theism's picture of god allowing moral evils so that choosing him means more on one hand and humans as evolved animals with desires that sometimes harm others on the other. Or natural evils as benefiting society or providing satisfying jobs on one hand and an uncaring deterministic universe filled with horrible weather on the other.

Lastly, there's also my argument from the impossibility of evil. I think god could have created a world in which evil was possible, but more like a math problem to be solved. Actually, this dovetails well with Zach's claim that many significant jobs arise from trying to combat natural evils. Flip that and think of committing evil as the problem to be solved. Imagine conceiving of killing Johnny but not being able to figure out how. You can will it, but not do it. We still consider ourselves free despite not being able to jump over buildings. Why doesn't this bother us? Presumably, we can be satisfied with our freedoms within our borders of limitation. Simply shrink that border to include many currently doable evils. Would the world really be worse off?


Anonymous said...

I use to read parts of Doubting Thomas, I might return reading it, but you made one insightful criticism that caught my eyes: Just as God creates the laws of Nature that regulates the universe, and then violates the laws of Nature through miracles (divine interference), why can't God interfere with human affairs that are circumscribed the the rules which God has created? It seems like a double standard: God is willing to interfere with the laws of nature but not human affairs.

But I also think there is another difficult problem with the arguments that Zach makes: If an omnipotent God permitted natural evils (or other evils) in order for human beings to have more significant lives, why can't God also allow the possibility of a significant life without suffering or natural evils? If God cannot do this, then God is not omnipotent (unless theist points out that the latter is logically impossible...); If God can do this but chooses not to, then he is malevolent, since the alternative choice is clearly more morally justified than the other. Also, if human beings reached heaven in which there is no natural evil or suffering, is their life any less significant? Why is it that in earth natural evils an suffering makes life more significant, but the case is not the same on heaven?

Hendy said...

@Anon: good points. I've wondered about these as well. Some responses I've encountered are that there is some maximally good combination of both a temporal and eternal realm such that the best possible human life is composed of what's available in this world + the next. This is all hypothetical, so there's no way to know; it's just an attempt to get out from under logical impossibility of this being the best possible world.

Also, some might say that this type of physical world is necessary for life and that carbon based life would be impossible without a universe this size, the type of world that allows natural disasters, etc. For example, if the earth weren't such that tornadoes can occur, then some other thing wouldn't also be able to occur.

Not that these are convincing; just wanted to throw out some things I've heard in response. The bottom line is that none of these defenses are testable or observable... so no one ever gets to just settle the matter. Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Hi John, I hope you aren't offended that I prefer to remain anonymous. First, I'd like to say that I'm impressed by your transparency. It seems this quest is one on which your find yourself due to your highly analytic nature. I would suggest that perhaps others - atheistic or religious - do not often find themselves so entrenched in the search due not to ignorance or brain-washing but rather because their brains are wired differently, in other words, they have different aptitudes.

Similarly, my lack of interest in woodworking is not an indication that I have been brain-washed against it, or that I am too ignorant to appreciate the intricacies of the craft, but rather that my greatest attempt at woodworking would lead to a frustrated lump of chipped wood. I'm perfectly happy not attempting it, but knowing that there are people that are great at woodwork. I choose to enjoy their work.

I would also like to speak to your frustration on having so many book titles suggested to you from those with religious beliefs. Having had a "going from one belief to another" experience in my life (though not a "deconversion") I can empathize with this frustration. I felt as though I wasn't free to change belief systems until those around me were also convinced, and I knew that wasn't going to happen. I felt their offering of book titles was a symptom of that. However, it's important to note that this wasn't always the case.

For instance, if one of your daughters asked you a question that you did not know the answer to, would you say:
a) I don't know, don't ask me again. (I'm feeling challenged and intimidated by your questions)
b) I don't know, hope you find your answer somewhere (I care about you but I'm not personally interested in that topic at all)
c) I don't know, but let's find out together. (I care about you and I'm also suddenly very interested in the same question, let's work together)
d) I don't know and I'm swamped with work right now, but I do know there's a pretty good explanation in the encyclopedia. I haven't read the whole thing, but I trust the information. (I care about you and I've skimmed across similar questions in the past, or know someone who did, here's what I found/hear is helpful)

I guess I'd ask you where most of your religious friends fell/fall *and* where you wish they fell? Sounds like the book offer-ers were either a or d. It's probably important to make the distinction as to which, since a and d are coming from very different places.

On a *completely* different note, I do have one question for you - this is absolutely not in any way a challenge or the beginning of a debate, I'm simply curious as to what your perspective is, since I'm positive this must be something that you - with your highly analytical mind - have already asked:

As an atheist, how do you approach the concept of mathematical infinity and space/time eternity both past and future?

Hendy said...

@Anon: Thanks for the thought provoking comment. I responded to it in a new post, as my response got so long!

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