Friday, July 03, 2009

The noseeum assumption

Because I’ve frequently presented a supralapsarian theodicy, I haven’t bothered with some other responses to the problem of evil. I’ve neglected other arguments because I find them unnecessary–which is not to say other arguments can’t be good arguments in their own right.

I’d add that a supralapsarian theodicy furnishes a general rationale for the existence of evil. It doesn’t presume to explain why God decrees any specific evil. And, in that respect, the argument I’m going to examine may have some supplementary value.

(BTW, I believe that Paul Manata has blogged on this issue as well.)

There are Christian philosophers who, in response to the evidential problem of evil, question a key premise. They take the position that if God exists, there’s no presumption that we would know his reasons for permitting evil. Therefore, they don’t think it’s incumbent upon a Christian to even give a reason for the occurrence of evil.

Of course, from the standpoint of an atheist, this smacks of special pleading. What are we to say to that reaction?

1.If you begin with the ground level assumption that there’s no evidence for God’s existence, then it’s more natural to view the response of these philosophers as special pleading. It’s like Flew’s famous parable of the invisible gardener. You have no initial evidence for God’s existence. Then, in the face of prima facie evidence against his existence, you add insult to injury by saying you also don’t need to give a reason for the occurrence of evil. You don’t need to give a reason for God’s existence and, what is more, you don’t need to give a reason for the existence of evil. So nothing could possibly count against your belief in God. Not the absence of evidence or the evidence to the contrary. One could justify any belief, however arbitrary or outlandish, on this basis.

2.This objection might have some force against a Christian fideist. Of course, as a fideist, he’d also be immune to that objection. But from an outsider’s perspective, it would carry some force.

However, except for fideists, most Christian philosophers, theologians, and apologists don’t begin with the ground level assumption that there’s no evidence for God. To the contrary, they think there are various lines of evidence for God’s existence.

Hence, there’s an obvious difference between saying:

i) We don’t have to give a reason for the existence of God, and–what is more–we don’t have to give a reason for the existence of evil!

And saying:

ii) We don’t have a reason for the existence of evil, but we have many reasons for the existence of God–some of which we can give you, and some of which we can’t (since they involve personal experience, which is intransitive).

(i) invites the charge of special pleading in a way that (ii) does not.

And this, in turn, goes to the incommensurable perspective of the believer and the unbeliever. From the unbeliever’s viewpoint, belief in God is like belief in the invisible gardener. The problem of evil is just a special case of that larger deficiency. An aggravating factor. One more thing the theist can’t account for.

Since, however, the average Christian philosopher, theologian, or apologist doesn’t share that perspective, the two sides don’t place the burden of proof in the same position. For they don’t share the same starting point.

3.Beyond the question of special pleading, is it possible or plausible that God could have reasons for allowing (or decreeing) evil which are inscrutable to the human observer? Seems to me that that’s eminently plausible.

Take those science fiction scenarios in which a time-traveler wants to improve the future. He wants to change the past to avert some future tragedy. But every time he tries, he discovers that by averting one tragedy, he precipitates another tragedy in its stead. Although, when he begins tinkering with the future, he’s sure that our world is not the best possible world, that he can create a better world, he finds out that it’s exceedingly difficult to create an alternate timeline in which the overall balance of good and evil is superior. On the one hand, a past evil might give rise to a future good. On the other hand, a past good might give rise to a future evil. He can eliminate one particular evil, but in so doing he either eliminates a resultant good or precipitates another evil which is just as bad or even worse.

Clearly no human being knows enough to juggle all of the alternate outcomes and say which aggregate outcome represents a better balance overall. Actual historical causation is fiendishly complex, and when you add hypothetical variables to the mix, the various permutations are hopelessly complicated. Who’s to say which combination is better or worse? Certainly no finite mind can perform that operation.

4.On a related note, it is plausible that God has a reason not to tell us his reason? Once again, that strikes me as eminently plausible.

Let’s go back to our science fiction scenario regarding the time-traveler. In order for God to tell us why he allows (or decrees) every specific evil occurrence, he’d have to reveal the future in minute detail. Reveal the future to show how past evils give rise to future goods. How the good outweighs the evil.

But, of course, science fiction scenarios involving time travel also explore the logical difficulties of knowing the future. A future you can know is a future you can change. For the future you know is a future which, by foreknowing it, you’re in a position to change. And that, in turn, introduces a counter-suggestive dynamic which undermines foreknowledge.

The reason we can’t change the future is because we don’t know the future. So we don’t know what to do in the present (or the past, under time travel scenarios) which would change the future.

If, however, you know the future, then you know what to change in the past to change in the future. But if, in fact, you act on that knowledge, you undermine the basis of that foreknowledge. That leads us to the intractable paradoxes of time travel.

Hence, there’s a plausible reason why God would refrain from revealing his detailed reasons for allowing (or decreeing) any particular evil. That action would require God to give us a blueprint of the future. But that generates two problems:

i) It would tempt us to tinker with the future. You and I as individuals don’t care about the overall good. We care about our loved ones. Our emotional priorities lie with the welfare of our loved ones. Left to our own devices, we’d lower the wellbeing of the many to raise the wellbeing of the few. To improve the situation of my loved ones at the expense of your loved ones.

ii) And, of course, you can’t change the future unless you know the future. But if you change the future you can’t know the future.

Therefore, God not only has a plausible reason, but a necessary reason, to keep his reasons to himself.

(God can know the future because God has no intention of changing the future. Indeed, he knows the future because he intends the future.)

5.I’d add that (3) & (4) aren’t special pleading. Most science fiction writers are unbelievers. Most science fictions writers who write about time travel are unbelievers. Therefore, when I use this scenario to illustrate a Christian theodicy, I’m drawing on assumptions which even unbelievers acknowledge. Therefore, it’s not special pleading for a Christian to make assumptions which he shares in common with the unbeliever.


  1. Excellent post, first I have read here. Enjoyed it!

    When you said, "And, of course, you can’t change the future unless you know the future. But if you change the future you can’t know the future."

    Why can't I know the future, act (to change it) and then know the future I changed? Or are you saying that if God reveled the future to me, if I were to act and change it, then it wouldn't have been the future God revealed to me? Or, if I were to act and "change" the future, then the other "future" was not really the future in the first place?
    Correct me where I am wrong, I want to understand this.

  2. Suppose, on July 4, 2009, I know that my brother will contract terminal cancer on October 8, 2009 due to an accidental exposure to radiation he suffered on June 17, 2007.

    I travel back in time to prevent the exposure. However, if I prevent the exposure on June 17, 2007, then I can’t know on July 4, 2009 that he will contract terminal cancer on October 8, 2009.

    Having changed the past in that respect, I also change the corresponding future (which is the point of the exercise), and thereby change the future object of knowledge. But the future is relative to my present, which is also relative to the past. So I can’t know on that date the future occurrence of an event which I preempted by going back in time.

    The past is the source of my future knowledge.

    (By contrast, God knows the future because God caused both the past and the future. And God doesn’t change the past.)

  3. Steve,

    I think it's helpful to note, as well, that the "noseeum assumption" is the central argument of Job. Thus, this theodicy is already built into Christian theism, which means that your thought experiments are strictly speaking unnecessary supplements to make an internal defense of Christian theism.

  4. desireforspiritualgrowth said...

    Why can't I know the future, act (to change it) and then know the future I changed?

    I agree with Steve's explanation. Apparently, so do many modern Sci Fi writers. That's why they often explain "changes" in the timeline as actually the creation of a parallel universe. See the recent Stargate Continuum movie and the accompanying Special Features.

    Also, while it's impossible to change the future, it's possible to affect the future with advanced information of a possible "certain" future if things don't change from the present to that future date.

    So, for example, when God told Hezekiah that he was about to die in the near future, it was true given he didn't respond (to God's insight into the "future") in the way God intended. God intended that when Hezekiah heard that he was about to die, that he would cry out to God for greater mercy and that would be the opportunity for God to answer his prayer to extend his life. Which was God's intention all along.

    In Steve's example, by God's ordinary providence (by which natural processes occur in a predictable manner), his brother's death on Oct. 8th was "certain". Steve can't go back in time to change the past (and by so doing change the future), but he could pray to God to have mercy and heal his brother so that his brother doesn't die Oct. 8.

    Steve, would you agree?