Thursday, January 17, 2019

Explaining evil, part 1

I plan to do a series of posts on yet another book on the problem of evil: W. Paul Franks, ed., Explaining Evil: Four Views (Bloomsbury 2019). Here's a description:

I think the problem of evil is overemphasized in atheism and Christian apologetics. If we were starting from scratch, would the problem of evil receive so much attention? I think it's like a social contagion or reinforcing loop where, if you keep saying the problem of evil is the main objection to belief in God, that's the effect of constant repetition. It feeds back into itself in a circular, self-conditioned dynamic. 

Strictly speaking, the book isn't about the problem of evil but the preliminary question of how, why, and whether evil exists. For a Christian respondent, that's intertwined with the problem of evil. Christian theology takes the existence of evil for granted, but that's not a given in atheism. Are pain and suffering evil? What is evil from a secular standpoint? Is there such a thing?

I bought the book primary for the contributions of Paul Helm and Erik Wielenberg. Helm is the preeminent Reformed philosopher of his generation while Wielenberg is one of the best atheist philosophers. 

Here is Wielenberg's response to Helm's felix culpa theodicy:

(ii) The atonement of sin is so good that it is better that there be atoned-for sin than that there be no sin in the first place (73).

Although that may be how the felix culpa theodicy is usually formulated, I disagree that God's permission/ordination of evil is only justified if a redeemed world is better overall than an unfallen world. Suppose there's a better world than the world in which my loved ones exist. If so, it's a cause for gratitude that God created a lesser world in which my loved ones exist rather than an upscale world in which they don't. God isn't elitist. We should be grateful that our existence is not in competition with "the best". What if we wouldn't make the cut? What if God picks losers rather than winners because he loves the underdog? Existence isn't a meritocracy. Salvation isn't theological eugenics. 

Accordingly, it seems that atonement can at best cancel the evil of sin, turning the overall balance of good and evil to zero; I don't see a plausible basis for holding that atonement–as distinguished from divine incarnation–could make the overall combination of sin and atonement into good (74). 

To be a redeemed creature, to experience reconciliation and restoration, is a richer experience than never failing in the first place. Which Wielenberg considers:

Diller considers the thought that "there is a special excellence to the quality of relationship that can be known by those once lost who are redeemed"…However, it is hard to see how to justify (ii) on such grounds without thereby committing oneself to such implausible claims as "the strongest marriages are those that have involved a period of divorce, or that the deepest mother-daughter relationship is enabled once the daughter commits patricide" (74).

It's not implausible that the strongest marriages are marriages that weather crisis and conflict, but survive the ordeal. There is, moreover, the interesting phenomenon of divorced couples who reconsider and remarry the original spouse. At the time they were too immature to appreciate each other. But in retrospect they came to realize they were right the first time around. The time apart gave them perspective. 

Furthermore, such grounds for (ii) suggest that greater degrees of alienation make possible more valuable goods of reconciliation later on. In the case of isn, that line of thinking appears to lead to the following problem:"If sin is the occasioning cause of grace…then  shouldn't the upright man try to overcome his repugnance to sin, and commit still more sins?" Acceptance of (ii) and the felix culpa theodicy suggests that more sin enhances the overall value of the world, all things considered–a dubious implication (74).

1. That doesn't follow. For one thing, it's not as if humans are morally pristine agents who must devise creative ways to experiment with evil so that we know what it's like. Rather, we're already born with a propensity for evil, and the question is how to break free. I have plenty of regrets without having to devise and explore novel exercises in sinning. 

2. Moreover, it's not as if you need to be repeatedly lost and found to have insight into what it's like to be lost and found. Indeed, if you were constantly rescued, it would become blasé and expected. If a hiker is lost in the forest, part of what makes rescue such a relief is the fear that he may not be found. He's in a state of desperate suspense. Waiting in hope and fear. 

Michael Peterson writes, "God's original purpose…[thus the highest good for creation is available without creation's descent into sin and evil" (74).

Is that supposed to mean God was blindsided by events and had to scramble to salvage his nearsighted plans?

"agency that is hardened and biochemically twisted (serial killers, child sex murderers, schizophrenics)"…Adam's worry is that God would be insufficiently loving and merciful toward such wrecked and ruined human agents were he to create them in order to display his perfection through divine atonement.

i) I'll bracket the "display his perfection through divine atonement" for another installment.

ii) What exactly is Wielenberg's responding to? Is he saying that's inconsistent with a felix culpa theodicy? If so, how does a felix culpa theodicy require God to be loving and merciful towards serial killers and child sex murderers? 

ii) Is he saying that's inconsistent with Helm's Calvinism? If so, does Calvinism require God to be loving and merciful towards serial killers and child sex murderers? In Calvinism God loves the elect. It's not a presupposition of Calvinism that God is merciful to everyone. Indeed, there's a fundamental sense in which God is unmerciful to the reprobate. 

iii) Is he saying that's inconsistent with what it means for God to be a benevolent being, from Wielendberg's perspective? Is Wielenberg supposing that to be good, God must be loving and merciful towards serial killers and child sex murderers? If he's operating from his own standards, then the onus lies on him to make a case for why divine goodness demands that. 

Psychopaths lack "the shackles of a nagging conscience"…for psychopaths, "moral…rules are annoying restrictions to be manipulated or ignored. None of these rules have any normative force for them". Psychopaths lack the emotional capacity to grasp the weight of morality and because they are devoid of guilt, see no need for any of their actions to be atoned for. It is hard to see why the existence of a particular sort of damaged agency is necessary for the great good of divine atonement. God could have omitted psychopaths from his grand plan without sacrificing the need for atonement (75).

i) Once again, what exactly is Wielenberg responding to? Since Helm is a Calvinist, he doesn't think everyone is redeemed. 

ii) Perhaps Wielenberg would say there's a point of tension between a felix culpa theodicy and limited atonement. If so, it's up to Wielenberg to explain why psychopaths, serial killers, and child sex murders must be redeemed for a redeemed world to be better overall than an unfallen world–even assuming that all psychos, serial killers, and child sex murderers are reprobate.

iii) Finally, if, according to Calvinism, God regenerates, sanctifies, and glorifies a psychopath, then he will come to perceive how his actions were blameworthy and desperately in need of atonement. Perhaps that discernment will be incomplete in this life. It may only be in heaven that his "wrecked and ruined agency" is fully repaired, although grace can enable him to gain some insight even in this life. Christian apologist David Wood appears to be a real-life example. 

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