Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What could God do about evil?

Atheist Keith Parsons did a long post on the problem of evil:

This included some lengthy comments as well. I'm of two minds about responding to this post. I don't like to repeat myself. But I'll make a few brief observations:

i) One concerns the starting point. The argument from evil typically begins with a definition of God supplied by philosophical theology. The "God" in question is a philosophical construct. Here's a standard example:

  1. If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
  2. If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
  3. If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
  4. If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
  5. Evil exists.
  6. If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
  7. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

And here is Parsons' version:

P: A perfectly good, omnipotent, and omniscient being will actualize an evil e only if (a) the actualization of e is a logically necessary condition for the prevention (the non-actualization) of an even worse evil e*; in other words, necessarily, e* is actualized if e is not. Or (b) the actualization of e is a logically necessary condition for the actualization of a redeeming good g; in other words, necessarily, if e is not actualized, then redeeming good g is not. 

ii) This begins by defining God by a set of attributes. (At least, the minimal attributes need to frame an argument from evil.) But suppose, instead of commencing with a philosophical abstraction, we took Yahweh as our starting point. Several things follow:

a) In Scripture, Yahweh isn't merely defined by his attributes, but by his actions. What is meant by the attributes is elucidated by his deeds. You don't begin by consulting a Hebrew lexicon to define justice, mercy, might &c. Rather, you study God in action. Yahweh's behavior in the historical narratives of Scripture explicate his attributes. 

b) Bible history is a catalogue of evil. Moral and natural evils. I doubt there's any basic kind of evil outside the Bible that you can't find described in Bible history.

c) In Scripture, Yahweh and evil coexist. In Scripture, Yahweh's existence is consistent with evil's existence. 

It would be a peculiar argument to claim the existence of evil is incompatible with Yahweh's existence when Scripture constantly depicts God and evil coexisting. 

If you take a concrete example of God, like Yahweh, then it's unclear how the argument from evil ever gets off the ground. The Biblical concept of God is consonant with the existence of evil. 

Even if an atheist regards Biblical narrative as fictional, that doesn't change the fact that the Scriptural idea of God is compatible with the occurrence of moral and natural evil. With examples of evil of the same kind that atheists cite to typify the argument from evil. 

iii) At the risk of repeating myself, time-travel stories illustrate the fact that if you change the past to improve the future, your action prevents one set of evils at the cost of producing another set of evils–as well as eliminating another set of goods. Indeed, Parsons concedes that very principle:

It is the case that evils and goods are connected in intricate ways so that some goods, indeed, some of the most important ones can only arise in the face of evils, and eliminating those evils would also cost us the related goods. 

Given the staggeringly complex effects of changing variables, where even altering a minor variable may snowball over time, I don't see how an atheist is in any position to say a selective improvement here or there would result in a net benefit. 

iv) Parsons cites the parable of Roland Puccetti about an absentee landlord who allows the apartment complex to fall into disrepair. But some tenants rise to his defense: For aught we know, he may have good reason for letting this sorry state of affairs transpire. 

Sure, it's always possible that there's a reasonable explanation, but that's not a justification to suspend judgment indefinitely. 

But that's misleading. This isn't simply an appeal to ignorance. There are many concrete examples where preventing one evil prevents some attendant good or goods, as well as causing a different evil or evils down the line. So it's not just speculation. 

For instance, we evaluate the past from the viewpoint of the present. There are cases in which an evil which seemed to be irredeemable to someone living in the past, at the time it occurred, can now be seen to be beneficial in retrospect. So there's ample precedent for taking that long-range view into account. 

v) And that's not an appeal to global skeptical theism, but local skeptical theism. It's not sheer skepticism, but, to the contrary, skepticism that builds on knowledge: examples of apparently gratuitous evil which, with the benefit of hindsight, can be seen to be purposeful. To say that divine providence is inscrutable is not to say that it's thoroughly opaque. Rather, it can be shot through with many examples of redeemed evils, second-order goods. 

vi) Furthermore, Parsons is addressing the problem of evil in isolation to evidence for God's existence. So it's not just a question of logical consistency, where, for all we know, a Deity could have a reason for not preventing it–and, for all we know, no such Deity exists. We're not balancing two antithetical propositions in abstract equilibrium. Put that way, it may seem like special pleading to hypothesize an ultimate rationale–in the absence of any evidence. Rather, the scales are heavily tipped in favor of God's existence. 

vii) Parsons atomizes good and evil as though every individual evil must be offset by an individual good, in one-to-one correspondence. But there's no reason to think that's what makes an evil gratuitous. It's not a matching quiz, but a chain of events. Does a particular evil contribute to a second order good? 

This deflates his objection to the soul-making theodicy. It's quite true that for some people, suffering is "soul-destroying" rather than "soul-building." Yet that's only a defect in the theodicy if you imagine that everyone is supposed to be purified by suffering. But what if some justly suffer for the sake of others? 

viii) In the prequel post, Parsons said:

Would any decent and sane person who could have thwarted the 9/11 attacks not have done so? The simple and highly intuitive point is that some evils are so heinous and bring about so much suffering, that any decent person would have prevented them.

a) The question is deceptively simple. Normally, a good person should thwart a humanitarian disaster. 

b) But that depends in part on whether we view the event as past or future. Suppose I was born in the 21C. Let's bracket time-travel antinomies. Suppose I can go back in time and prevent WWI by thwarting the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. But if I do so, I will preempt my mother's birth–and, of course, my own birth!

By preventing WWI, I save many lives, but by the same token, I erase many lives. All the men and women to be born as a result of that catastrophe–including my own. 

And that's not the same thing as sacrificing my life to save others. Rather, this is sacrificing my existence to save others. That's far more radical. I will never come into being!

But even if I were that altruistic, it doesn't follow that I'd prevent WWI at the expense of my own mother. I'm not prepared to do that.

Conversely, suppose you were the time-traveler. Suppose you could prevent a disaster that would kill your mother (after you were born), but at the expense of killing my mother. If you must choose whose mother to save, you will save your mother rather than mine. And I'd do the same thing in reverse. 

We can dilate in the abstract about saving lives, but that ignores the element of personal attachment. When it comes to saving strangers, it may make no difference, but people are connected to other people in complex ways. It's not a game of checkers, with identical pieces. Even if people look alike on the outside, there are hidden affinities between some people. 

Now, we might say God has a more impartial perspective. But in that case, the analogy breaks down. If, moreover, God doesn't have the same emotional investment in the lives of any particular individual, then saving every life might not be his priority. 

1 comment:

  1. The philosophical construct is always a bit simplistic. That is, it ignores that God's nature begs differentiation between the nature of God and that which differs from God in his creation, thus God's attribute of wrath. One cannot point to the wrath of God to disprove the holiness of God when the wrath of God serves the holiness of God.