Saturday, November 14, 2015

Unforeseeable consequences

One common plank of the freewill defense is the contention that, to be meaningful, our choices must have predictable consequences. That entails a stable environment. And that means God can't jump in to save our bacon. The laws of nature are the price we pay for responsible decision-making.

This argument was popularized by C. S. Lewis. Although it's common to the freewill defense, a Calvinist can also incorporate the same principle into his overall theodicy. Making choices based on predictable consequences is certainly consonant with compatibilism. 

So I think the stable environment theodicy has some merit, but it's inconsistent. Although nature is predictable in some respects, nature is unpredictable in other respects, and some natural evils are among the least predictable features of nature.

We've gotten pretty good at forecasting hurricanes. (Of course, that's useless to our pre-scientific forebears.) But we can't predict earthquakes, mudslides, tsunamis, droughts (and drought-related famine).  

If a tsunami occurs, we maybe able to predict the trajectory and arrival time. However, that's generally useless because you can't evacuate port cities in a few hours. 

We can't forecast tornadoes. If they occur, we can track then, but the lead-time is often down to minutes. There really isn't time for advance warning. (And, or course, our prescientific forbears couldn't even track tornadoes.)

We have a far better understanding of disease transmission, so we can now avoid or reduce some epidemics and pandemics, viz. rat control, draining or spraying malarial ponds and swamps. (Again, that knowhow wasn't available to our prescientific ancestors.) 

There are genetic diseases we can now predict, but not prevent. So the patient feels doomed by a dreadful diagnosis and fateful prognosis. 

It's hard to protect against venomous snakes. If you see them in plain sight, you can avoid them or kill them with a rock or a stick. 

But take Indian farmers who are bitten by cobras when they harvest rice patties. That's predictable in the coarse-grained sense that there's an appreciable risk. But it's unpredictable in the fine-grained sense that you don't know where not to step until it's too late. 

Likewise, it's well-nigh impossible to snakeproof a house, especially huts, shacks, and shanties. These are porous. Lots of ways for snakes to get inside. 

If it's a nocturnal venomous snake, you may be bitten if you step on it in the dark. Or you may be bitten when it crawls into bed to snuggle up against that nice warm body.

So there's often no way to protect against kraits, mambas, cobras, Russell's vipers, &c. You can't take adequate precautions, or anticipate where they will strike. 

The stable environment theodicy is a poor fit with what the natural world is actually like. At best, it intersects with a part of nature.  


  1. I think it misses the point to think this is an inconsistency. Most theodicies aren't intended to explain all evil, and most do so in terms of some higher good that's worth having that makes it worth the evil it allows or requires. A predictable enough world that allows us to predict the consequences of our actions is one such higher good that requires allowing some evil, or else we might be punching each other in the face when we try to shake hands or give someone a hug, or we might poison ourselves by eating food that's usually healthy. But there are other goods, and we shouldn't think God would pursue some goods even to the point where other goods are disallowed. A world that was entirely predictable would involve less good in other ways. For example, there would be no improvement or growth toward good, and maybe that's even required for a condition of being merely human but perfected to the point of never wanting to do evil. It doesn't matter what the particular good is, just that there's some other good that requires the level of predictability not to be complete, at least in this life.

    Many theodical considerations go that way. See Descartes' Meditation IV, where he argues that a perfect being wouldn't want us to be deceived but that some level of error in our capacities would be requires for other purposes God would have for us. This is just standard theodical thinking. To call it inconsistent seems to me to miss the point. It's about making room in the theory for a multiplicity of goods, some of which don't allow the others to go all the way to the extreme, even if having them at some level is better or even required.

    1. Actually, I think my objection is exactly on point. The central rationale for the stable environment theodicy is that God doesn't avert natural evils more often because doing so would wreak havoc with the predictability of nature, which is of overriding value.

      Yet the problem with many natural evils is precisely their unpredictability. So this theodicy is self-contradictory.

  2. Natural disasters aren't all that predictable, relatively speaking, but a world without laws of nature would be far worse. The usual answer for why God wouldn't just suspend those laws of nature isn't just about predictability. It involves other goods, such as simplicity. Malebranche and Leibniz both make a big deal about that. It doesn't negate the predictability theodicy. It just requires something else to be said too.

    1. I didn't suggest a world without natural laws as the alternative. That's a false dichotomy. My objection is more specific because the stable environment theodicy is more specific: the more God intervenes to prevent natural disasters, the more unpredictable nature becomes–yet living in a world governed by natural laws is is better than living in Alice in Wonderland.

      Problem with that argument is that if certain kinds of natural evils are unpredictable, then divine intervention in those cases doesn't make nature more unpredictable in general. Hence, the theodicy fails in that respect. Yet that was the specific rationale for the theodicy in question.

  3. The only two contemporary philosophical works where I've seen this presented (Peter van Inwagen and Dan Howard-Snyder) , the contrast is with no laws. The only people I've seen talk about "the more God intervenes" being bad in some way are Descartes, Malebranche, Locke, and Leibniz, all of whom are talking about simplicity of God's ways as reasons God doesn't perform many miracles past the apostolic period. The contemporary philosophers I've seen present this are using it as a justification for having laws to begin with.

    But I'm not sure I agree with your premise. If hurricanes are unpredictable, it's because we can't get to the precise level of understanding of the data to predict them. Making them more predictable would make it easier to handle them. But it would also make life in the world when there are no natural disasters less predictable, because we would know the natural laws get suspended all the time. So there might be moments when it's harder to predict things, yes. But it's simply not true that life in general would be easier to predict if God did more miracles regarding natural disasters. In fact, we've come to understand these phenomena much better, precisely because they do follow natural laws, the same natural laws that we use to understand the world in general.

    1. I didn't suggest that life would be more predictable if God performed more miracles. Rather, I said that wouldn't make life less predictable if he intervened in situations that are already unpredictable.

  4. I will let you in on a little secret. The parable of the wheat and the tares ties up the problem of evil in a nice little bow. The land owner tolerates the tares in his field sowed by his enemy because gathering them up would uproot the wheat with them.

    1. I will let you in on a little secret: your comment is irrelevant to the topic of my post. But since you like to post uncomprehending comments, don't make an exception in this case.

    2. Your original post lacks enough context for me to really know what you are talking about. (What is "the freewill defense" and why are predictable consequences important to it?)

      That being said, it seems to me that the parable of the wheat and tares explains why God can't save our bacon. He could, but it would involve uprooting wheat along with the tares.

    3. Then maybe you should educate yourself about the freewill defense before you presume make uniformed comments.

      The parable of the wheat and tares is not about natural evils.

  5. Steve, I think you have the wrong end of the stick here because you're taking the claim to be that we live in a _really_ stable environment or something like that.

    Look at it, rather, from the perspective of _our_ actions. Take your snake example: Suppose that I have an evil heart and hate my neighbor, so I capture a cobra, which I know likes a cool environment, and sneak it into his bathroom at night. We live in a warm climate. Now, part of the whole context here is that I know _enough_ about cobras and their habits that I genuinely am _trying_ to get my neighbor bitten by a cobra. In a world in which God is constantly jumping in to make sure that I can't actually harm anybody else, I will pretty soon get the idea that there's not much point to my trying to kill my neighbor with a cobra, because the cobra will just de-materialize or lose its fangs or some dumb thing.

    Multiply that by a gazillion: Bullets always bounce back when fired at the innocent. Would-be murderers get suddenly paralyzed. Anybody you throw off a cliff suddenly floats. And so on and so forth. *That's* what we're talking about if God is responsible morally to prevent all intended evil from having its outward effects.

    Now, it's obvious that _that_ kind of world does not permit the goods that can develop in a world where you actually can harm somebody, can rescue somebody from harm, can interact with each other in a causally meaningful way, etc.

    God is not morally required to make our world into that kind of world.

    1. Yes, that's how I've seen this issue discussed by contemporary philosophers.

  6. Thanks, Lydia. That makes more sense. However, it shifts the category from natural even to moral evil. Perhaps the contention is that moral evil includes natural laws. Even if that's the case, natural evil doesn't necessarily or even generally include moral evil.

    1. Yes, I think the focus is generally on moral evil, though you can imagine how God's being required to prevent all natural evil would involve similar consequences: E.g. Any time someone is about to fall off a cliff _by accident_, some miraculous thing has to happen to save him. People (or just good people?) always recover from serious illness and never die. *Anytime* someone innocent is almost in a car accident, they have a miraculous escape. And so on and so forth.

      In other words, the problem arises when it is asked _generally_ why God allows evil, because when one gets into the nitty-gritty of it, for God to prevent _all_ evil is going to involve these ludicrous consequences.

    2. Okay, but like Jeremy, you're making a stronger claim than I did. The question at issue wasn't whether God is "required to prevent all natural evil," but whether divine nonintervention in the case of natural evil is necessary to preserve the predictability of nature. And my argument wasn't about "all natural evil," but unpredictable natural evils in particular.

      So I think the standard version of the stable environment theodocy suffers from a serious overgeneralization.

    3. Well, if you are suggesting that the person pressing the problem of evil should say that God ought to prevent just natural evils that are unpredictable already, then we get into somewhat of an arbitrariness problem. See, at least the person pressing the argument from evil has a kind of consistency and non-arbitrariness as long as he says, "Why does God allow any evil at all?" But the minute he says, "Okay, okay, I see that God needs to allow a lot of evil if he is going to allow free will and not be constantly overturning natural law. But still, God should stop *this particular evil* or *this particular class of evil* anyway," then there is a question of arbitrariness.

      And I think such a problem is there if we imagine someone saying that God should only intervene to prevent evils which, by their very nature, are unpredictable and hence which we would not realize he had intervened to prevent. For one thing, is he saying God should prevent _all_ of them? So God can allow, say, rape but has to prevent all earthquakes? So God should intervene a lot with physical laws so there is no such category as earthquakes? Only some earthquakes? Which ones? How do you know God _doesn't_ prevent some earthquakes? I mean, the whole point is that we wouldn't know, right?

      It becomes extremely hair-splitting at a certain point when the skeptic is basically saying that God is *obligated* to prevent *some* evil, but he has no principled way to say how much evil he thinks God ought to prevent "if God were really good."

    4. Once again, you're imputing to me a stronger claim than I made. I didn't suggest that God is obligated to prevent unpredictable natural evils. I said, rather, that if the stated rationale of the stable environment theodicy is that God doesn't preempt natural evils because to do so would destabilize the predictability of nature, then it's sufficient to point to counterexamples of natural evils that are already unpredictable. Divine intervention wouldn't make nature more unpredictable in *that* regard.

      It is not ad hoc to focus on the subset of natural evils which are unpredictable, when predictability is a principle of the theodicy in question.

      I'm a bit puzzled by why you and Jeremy keep substituting different arguments than the one I actually used.

    5. Yeah, I'm a little surprised that you find what we're saying confusing.

      The stability argument is made in response to what one might call a "principled" (if that is the right word) objection from evil--that is, any kind of general requirement that God should stop evil just because it is evil and he is good. It's obvious that any such claimed principle is going to run into problems with the need for a stable natural order, predictable results of human actions, and the like.

      Now, let's suppose that the person trying to press the problem of evil tries to retrench and say *only* that God is obligated morally to prevent natural evils in scenarios where they are already unpredictable, so as not to upset the natural order in any noticeable way. You say that you are not suggesting that the skeptic do that. But if you are not suggesting that the skeptic do that, then I don't know what you mean by a "counterexample." After all, presumably the *whole point* in the argument as a whole of any such "counterexample" would be for the skeptic to say, "Aha! But God _could_ prevent _this_ type of natural evil without running into _that_ problem (concerning stability), so why doesn't he at least do that??"

      Otherwise, why is the skeptic pointing to this sub-category as an alleged "counterexample" to the stability response? Presumably the skeptic's goal is to make a problem of evil argument--to say that we have evidence against the goodness of God from the fact that he does not prevent some evil or other.

      And I've given my response above if the skeptic does try to do that. Namely

      1) If the whole point is that God would be intervening very subtly in an already-unpredictable situation to prevent at least some natural evil, how do you know he hasn't done so?

      2) It is arbitrary to try to pick some sub-class of evils and _demand_ that a good God must prevent those.

    6. Lydia McGrew

      "Yeah, I'm a little surprised that you find what we're saying confusing."

      Sorry, I don't mean to intrude into the discussion, but I think I read what Steve has said differently:

      At least as I read him, Steve said he's puzzled by why there are different arguments made in lieu of the actual argument he's making, not that he's confused about what the arguments that have been made are arguing.

      In other words, I presume Steve understands perfectly well what Jeremy and you are arguing, but he's puzzled as to why you guys seem to think he's arguing something he's not arguing.

      Of course, I could be mistaken, but that's my reading.

    7. One needn't be a "sceptic" to critique this theodicy, at least as typically presented. Christian philosophers are concerned with sifting good arguments from bad arguments in support of the faith. The fact that a Christian philosopher might find fault with a particular theodicy doesn't mean he's assuming the role of a sceptic or speaking on behalf of a skeptic. For instance, there's an open theist theodicy based on God's (alleged) ignorance of the future. A Christian can reject that theodicy without assuming the role of a sceptic or speaking on behalf of a sceptic.

      The counterexample functions as a specific and major exception to the scope of the claim.

    8. But it's only a "major exception to the scope of the claim" within the context of theodicical debate insofar as it serves the purpose of furthering an argument from the problem of evil. And in that context, there just doesn't seem to be anywhere to _go_ with such an exception _unless_ someonne uses that exception to argue that in that case, one could try to say that God is _obligated_ to try to limit natural evil in those areas where there is already unpredictability. If that isn't what someone is going to _do_ with the alleged exception, it makes no sense to bring it up as an alleged "exception to a theodicy." It isn't a hole in the theodicy if it can't be used against the theodicy, and what I've sketched (and replied to) is the only way that I can think of in which it could be used against the theodicy.

    9. Something also occurred to me that might be clarifying and relevant:

      Someone who makes the "stability" response is not at all obligated to adopt anything like deism. For example, I make the stability response to "Why doesn't God abolish/prevent evil?" yet I believe that God does lots of miracles. So it's not as though you have to say that God never interrupts the laws of nature.

      However, what one does say is that God is not _obligated_ to interrupt the laws of nature and does not do so according to some general principle like, "Preventing all the evil possible" or anything of the kind. When God heals someone or prevents an earthquake or protects people miraculously from evildoers, that's extra. It's something to be especially thankful for, but it isn't something that is required by a larger principle of Divine goodness. This is similar to what you and I, Steve, were saying (I recall your being involved) to the blogger "Remonstrant" who lost his faith after God did not make himself more obvious to him during his suffering.