Saturday, February 22, 2014

Riddle me this!

Antony Flew penned a famous parable about the invisible gardner. His parable is somewhat self-defeating. After all, since gardens don't prune or weed themselves, even if the gardner was empirically indetectable, we'd be required to infer a powerful intelligence who was acting as a gardner behind-the-scenes. Left untended, gardens revert to the wild.
Perhaps, though, Flew intended the identity of the garden to be ambiguous. Was it really a garden, or a meadow with wildflowers that looked like a garden? 
Be that as it may, Basil Mitchell countered Flew with a little parable of his own. Mitchell was a Christian philosopher and apologist. Here's his counter parable:
In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a Stranger who deeply impresses him... The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him. They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, ‘He is on our side.’ Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handling over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him: but the partisan still says, ‘He is on our side.’ He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him... Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?’ But the partisan refuses to answer.
i) Although it's hypothetical, it would have some concrete resonance for Mitchell and Flew, as Englishmen who lived through World War II. That's clearly the tacit background for the parable. Even though it's fictional, it's realistic. Things like that probably happened during the war. 
ii) What's interesting about Mitchell's parable is that the Stranger is morally ambiguous. His actions are open to two opposing interpretations. Whose side is he on? He is trying to infiltrate the resistance or the occupation force? Is he a bad guy impersonating a good guy, or a good guy impersonating a bad guy? 
Suppose you had a Jewish scientist or military intelligence officer serving in the Third Reich or the Vichy regime. That might seem counterintuitive, but not necessarily. 
Perhaps he can pass for an Aryan. They don't suspect he's Jewish. He can do more damage on the inside than the outside. He can be an informant to the allies or the resistance. 
But there's a catch. He must be a convincing Nazi. So he has to go through the motions. Feign enthusiasm for the cause.
iii) This is a common plot motif in police dramas. An undercover cop tries to infiltrate the mob. But there's a catch. The rite of initiation involves having the new recruit carry out a hit. That's a test of his bona fides. 
The new recruit is brought to an abandoned warehouse or industrial garage. The Don is there with his goons. There's a blindfolded man kneeling on the floor. Turns out, he's a snitch. A police informant. The Don orders the new recruit to cap the snitch. 
That's a dilemma for the undercover cop, but a win-win for the Don. If, on the one hand, the cop refuses, then the Don has blown his cover. If, on the other hand, he caps the snitch, then he's crossed over. He's become one of them. He can never go back to being a policeman. They have the goods on him. He's morally and legally compromised. 
How far is the cop prepared to go to maintain his cover? This is usually where you have a commercial break, to keep the audience in suspense. How will the screenwriters extricate their character from the bind they put him in?
There are two conventional solutions. One is the deus ex machine. They have a timely intervention. Perhaps, at the very last moment, just before the cop has to refuse or pull the trigger, the Don receives a phone call requiring his presence elsewhere. 
Or perhaps the cop is wearing a wire. His team comes storming in right in the nick of time. 
The other solution is for the cop to say, "No, boss, he's more useful to us alive. The police don't know we know he's a snitch. So we can use him to feed them disinformation. Throw them off the scent."
The Don nods at this ingenious plan. 
Screenwriters typically won't allow the hero to cross that line of no return. What made 24 bracing in the first season or so is that Jack Bauer played against the conventions. He was idealistic, but a ruthless idealist. A utilitarian. He was prepared to do whatever it took for the common good. Defeat the enemy by any means necessary.

TV viewers weren't use to that. After a while, they come to expect it–but not at first. 
iv) What's interesting about Mitchell's parable is that you can have a good guy who appears to be morally ambiguous. By analogy, God could do things which seem to make him morally ambiguous, even though he's benevolent. Do things which are obviously benevoent, but do other things which call into question his benevolence. 
Of course, God is in a very different situation than a double agent. So we'd have to consider what, if anything, would be analogous. 
v) In the argument from evil, atheists typically cite large-scale events to illustrate moral or natural evils, like the Holocaust or the Boxing Day tsunami. However, it's pretty easy to come up with a theodicy to account for such events. Precisely because they are such massive events, their occurrence or nonoccurrence has enormous consequences for good or ill. Both good and bad consequences ensue as a result of their occurrence. Both good and bad consequences would ensue as a result of their nonoccurence. That's the stuff of alternate histories. Preventing the moral or natural evil would eliminate the evil at the cost of eliminating some resultant goods as well as causing some other evils in its place. 
What's harder to account for are little evils. Private evils. Self-contained evils that seem to have no beneficial consequences. They appear to be truly gratuitous. 
Mitchell's parable, and variations thereon, does illustrate the principle that an agent can appear to be morally ambiguous even when he's acting morally. 
vi) Of course, even if we don't have a theodicy, the argument from evil is toothless. Absent God, there is no evil. Absent God, we feel compassion for victims because natural selection conditions us to feel that way. But humans have no objective value. 
Since there's abundant evidence for God's existence, what we have is, at most, a riddle. 
It may be that some evils need to be humanly inexplicable to furnish a test of faith. If we could explain every evil, then we wouldn't need to trust God. That, itself, may be the explanation. 


  1. Thanks for posting this, Steve. Great post. :-)

  2. Thank you for this Steve.