Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Last Puritan

Andrea Weisberger said...

“The upshot of all this is that if there is suffering in the world which is extra -- something which is not accounted for by appeals to free will, or some other type of excuse, then there is unnecessary suffering.

If there is unnecessary suffering in the world -- suffering for which there is no good reason, or any reason, then either god is not all powerful (else this suffering would be eradicated) or god is not all good (since a good god would want to eradicate that to which it is in opposition).

This, in a nutshell, is the problem of evil.”

Andrea is in a bind. She is attempting to disprove the existence of God by invoking the problem of evil.

The problem of evil comes in two basic forms: moral and natural evil.

The difficulty with invoking the moral version is that there are some well-lubricated countermoves to that appeal: the freewill defense, a soul-making theodicy, Leibniz on the best possible world, or a supralapsarian rationale.

In addition, the theodicist can always claim that since it’s sinners who suffer, their suffering is not unjust, but rather, poetic justice. They suffer for their sins.

If an atheist can switch to natural evil, that will undercut a number of theodicies adapted to the moral version.

But there are problems with that move as well. On the face of it, natural evils are not intrinsically evil. Either they’re intrinsically good, or else they’re neutral.

Water is necessary for life, but too much water or too little water is destructive to life. Fire can warm, but fire can burn.

Pain is unpleasant, but an organism insensible to pain is at great risk of injury.

Natural disasters are only disastrous in relation to the incidental organisms that happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Yet natural disasters are not surd events. They result from the conjunction of certain natural forces. And they are often beneficial to the ecosystem. The immediate damage is offset by a long-range or large-scale improvement over the preexisting conditions.

So natural evils are not gratuitous evils. Rather, they serve an obvious function in a physical universe.

What Andrea gives us is a synthesis or hybrid by piggybacking natural evil onto moral evil.

Her showcase is animal cruelty, viz., the hunting and consumption of wild horses.

Horses are innocent, involuntary victims of human caprice and cruelty.

If the argument succeeds, it will capitalize on the merits of both the moral and the natural versions of the problem of evil without their attendant difficulties.

If it fails, it will inherit the liabilities of both versions without their compensatory gains.

As I pointed out in my previous critique, Andrea’s argument is burdened by too many unpaid intellectual bills.

Her case hinges on many unspoken assumptions for which she offers no supporting argument.

We will not extend her a line of credit until she begins to pay some of her intellectual debts.

Moving on:

“Anyone who is in doubt as to whether ‘suffering is a bad thing’ ... well maybe they are a masochist or a sadist -- someone who takes pleasure in the pain of others or themselves perhaps.

In general, for the vast majority of sentient creatures, suffering is most certainly a bad thing.

Is that not self-evident?”

In some ways, this goes to the nub of the problem.

i) Is it self-evident that suffering is a bad thing?

Is it evil that I burn my fingers on a hot stove?

Or would it be evil if I were insensible to pain, so that I kept my hand on the hot stove until the damage done was irreparable?

ii) Self-evident relative to what? Andrea’s rhetorical question enjoys a good deal of intuitive appeal.

The problem, though, is whether her moral intuition makes any sense given her secular outlook on life.

Due to natural revelation and common grace, Andrea retains a remnant of common decency.

But is suffering self-evidently evil from the viewpoint of atheism?

iii) One of the funny things about unbelievers is that even though they deny the doctrine of the Fall, they act as if they were living in a fallen world.

Now, from Andrea’s perspective, the sensible world is the only world there is. There is nothing else to compare it to. It just is.

So why is she so bothered by the fate of wild horses? Either they’re killed by human hunters or natural predators. Is it better to die in the wild? Is it so much better to be eaten alive by a wolf pack?

Why does she act as if there’s something wrong with the world? As if things are not the way they are supposed to be?

How is she in any position to compare the real with the ideal? If this world is all there is, then what supplies the ideal frame of reference by which she disapproves of what she sees?

iv) Aren’t human beings just what natural selection made us to be? Aren’t we killer apes by nature? Blame it on our smart genes.

How did Andrea and others like her ever get to be so emotionally maladjusted to the world they live in?

What makes them think that something is not quite right with the world? Why do they find themselves alienated from the only world there is?

For someone who presumably believes in evolutionary adaptation, Andrea is remarkably ill-adapted to her own environment.

Unbelievers so often act as if this world were paradise lost, and it’s their sacred duty to redeem it and restore it to its Edenic perfection.

Andrea is a secular postmillennialist—like the dutiful characters parodied in Santayana’s The Last Puritan.

Or as Hepburn said to Bogart, "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put into this world to rise above."

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