Thursday, August 5

You Can Skip Reading This Post …

skeptic ... because you've read it before. Or some cognate of it. Many times. Dozens of times. It may be hundreds of times. By many writers. Over the years. Why? Because it's about "The Problem of Evil". And after maybe 4,000 years worth of attempts, perhaps beginning with the book of Job -- certainly no later than that -- there is literally nothing to say that hasn't already been said. Many times. But, in light of recent events, I'll have another go at it.

Since this is too important an issue to be dealt with in terms of bloodless abstractions, let's take a concrete, particular, discrete example: imagine a commercial airliner flying over an active war zone. A commander on the ground launches, or orders the launch of, a surface-to-air missile, which hits the plane and destroys it, precipitating a gory rain of corpses, viscera, luggage, teddy bears, and metal onto the ground below -- including the bodies, or parts thereof, of 80 kids ... 3 of whom are infants. All noncombatants. All innocent. All dead. All nearly-300 of them.


Why was God not policing the friendly skies?

Many answers have been proposed, mostly, though not completely, by people who have some prior vested interest in believing in a good and benevolent God. (I say "though not completely" because there are theologians who cast themselves as prosecuting attorneys who ably argue the case against God. One such good "contrarian" example is David Blumenthal's Facing the Abusing God. Also Elie Weisel's Night and Gates of the Forest. There is also the literature of post-Holocaust Jewish theologians like Eliezer Berkovits and Emil Fackenheim. But they are the exceptions.) All theodicies propose to exculpate God. That is what theodicy is:  "Justify[ing] the ways of God to man", in Milton's classic definition. But none would be worthy of serious consideration, were it not for the curious human taste for schadenfreude: the tendency to probe a hollow tooth with the tongue and study the resulting pain. So, in the interest of lacerating ourselves, we elect to commit misdemeanor theodicy.

One strategy is to allege that evil in the world is the result of human choice, not because of anything God does or doesn't do. So the air defense officer looks at his radar screen, sees the airliner "painted" by the targeting system, and chooses to issue the order to fire the missile. His subordinate chooses to obey, and presses the button to fire. (Even if the system is fully automated, someone had to choose to emplace and activate it.) At no point does God countermand these choices, for fear -- so the argument goes -- of robbing humans of choice and turning us into robots.

But this superficially convincing argument exonerates God by vitiating human law. Never mind Divine law for now. Systems of human law exist to prevent human beings from implementing their free choices. I may freely choose to pick up a shotgun, cross the street, and gratuitously blow my neighbor in half. But if the police get wind of my intent, the entire Kent, WA, Police Department will intervene to prevent my action, my free choice be damned. Why? Because not all free choices deserve to be implemented. In fact, that is a pretty good hip-pocket definition of "civilization": the inhibition of certain free choices. That is why Freud said "Civilization is bought at the price of inhibitions". The "free-choice" theodicy does not recognize this principle. Nor does the God of such an argument, whose imbecilic smile uncritically validates every choice every human being makes, irrespective of consequences. If the price of preserving God's moral virginity is the wholesale discrediting of human law, then the price is too high.

wrong or right ethical question

Or it is often argued that apparent atrocities, like Judas' betrayal of Jesus -- or the gratuitous destruction of civilian airliners -- conduce to some higher Purpose, inconceivable to humans -- and likewise, to humans, inconceivably good. But this argument is vulnerable to at least three objections:

(1) When one asks the person advancing this argument what possible good could justify a rain of blood, flesh, and children from a clear sky, the reply is always either incoherent or nonexistent, concluding with a shrug, upturned palms, and an anticlimactic remark like "Well ... It's just a mystery".

(2) The "greater good" response implicitly impugns humans' capacity for moral autonomy by "proving" far too much: if wanton murder and infanticide can be justified by appeal to a presumptive "higher good", then what moral monstrosity cannot be similarly justified? Arbitrarily large crimes can be justified by reference to arbitrarily large -- but still unspecified -- goods.

(3) Finally, (1) and (2) add up to a "blanket" & unqualified argument that the end justifies the means. In some cases, this is almost certainly true:  sometimes, some ends do justify some means. E.g., most of us would say that, under many circumstances, stealing food to feed one's starving children would be justified. (But even such a case may well not be an unqualified and universal justification, e.g., would one be justified in kidnapping someone else's children in order to extort money to buy food for one's own children?) But in such cases, one can at least specify the particular end to be justified. That is much different from describing the means to be justified, and then retrospectively conjecturing an unspecified, speculative, and purely hypothetical end to justify it. Writing such ethical blank checks -- with no guarantee of money in the bank to cash them -- reeks of post facto question-begging. Given the viscera and blood littering the ground, such consciously meticulous and selective cherry-picking seems more than slightly indecent.


Furthermore, there is the issue of malignant coincidence. Theodical apologists for God often appeal to apparent coincidences as presumptive evidence of God's goodness and benevolence: the tornado that destroys a house on this side of the street but not that side; the man who "just happens" to have his first heart attack in a clinic while seeing a doctor for an unrelated condition; etc., etc. We can always ask the opinion of people on the losing side in such coincidences: the family from that side of the street whose house was blown away; the heart-attack victim who was fly-fishing in the wilds of Vancouver Island, etc. But aside from that, if we grant that happy coincidences argue in favor of God's care, are we not equally justified in arguing that tragic coincidences argue against it? So, speaking of the latter, "malignant" coincidences, what of the stunningly malignant coincidence of one airplane being lost and another -- of the same airline -- being destroyed in an interval of 5 months. How does attending to the "good" case while ignoring the "bad" case not amount to mere invidious cherry-picking?  After all, if my guiding first principle is that the Mariners must have a championship season, all I have to do is to simply ignore, or otherwise rationalize away, the games they lose!  Problem solved.

There are other arguments, all worthy of even less consideration,such as ...

o "Evil is purely negative, being a privation of Good, and therefore does not exist" (My response: "Whaaa-zat again? And can you gimme a toke offa that?")

o "God, being God, can define Good and Evil however God wishes" (My response: "Merely a genteel form of brute force / might makes right")

o "Who are you to question God?" (My response: "Who do I have to be? And who says?")

o "Just have faith" (My response: "DIY prefrontal lobotomies are hazardous to one's health") ... etc., etc., etc.


I used to respond in just those ways.  That is why they are so familiar.  But after a while, this whole mode of discourse began to look. and still looks to me, more and more like the moral equivalent of medieval epicycles. At least in retrospect, the fact that epicycles -- basically, orbits within orbits within orbits ... etc. -- had to be postulated to salvage geocentric cosmologies meant that those cosmologies were just ... well ... just wrong. Ditto my engaging in contorted moral argument about justifying the dismemberment of kids in order to salvage my own belief -- for it turned out to be all about me and my comfort -- in a monotheistic Potentate on Whose Desk the discursive Buck stops. Finally, my theodical convolutions reached such a critical mass that the entire enterprise of theodicy became self-refuting and collapsed under its own weight. Justifying God, like justifying geocentrism, simply became 'way too much trouble. At that point, roughly a dozen years ago, I had to admit that the wheels had come off the theological bus no less than its astronomical counterpart.

Might I respectfully venture suggesting that the central fallacy lies in the -- entirely unwarranted and sheer a priori! -- assumption that the Universe is being "run", or that the Universe is the kind of entity that even needs to be run, by anyone ... or by any One ... especially when preserving belief in same requires seriously -- I say again: seriously -- entertaining the argument that the death and / or disappearance of roughly 600 people is morally justified or even morally justifiable. Morality has nothing to do with it. Sheer randomness does. Remember the iconic bumper sticker "[Stuff] happens". Maintaining my own ethical maturity and intellectual integrity alike demand the recognition that whatever moral structure there is in the Universe is not pre-ordained, least of all Divinely so, but instead that morality is a purely human artifact supported by roughly 10,000 years of homo sapiens sapiens' experience living in community with each other. We've learned "stuff" -- a boatload of "stuff" -- over those 400 generations. Sometimes those lessons get implemented. When they do, we end up with things like legally enforced rights for all. When they don't, we end up with missiles attacking passenger planes and wheat fields carpeted with body parts. Not because the gods failed at being gods. But, I came to realize, because humans failed at being human.

Now, I am not responsible for forming anyone else's conscience.  But I am responsible for, and fully capable of, forming my own.  Accordingly, at this point, the following is what I (have come to) believe:

There is no one to take care of us but us. The "Problem of Evil" is only a problem if we first postulate the existence -- and consequently the potential negligence or incompetence -- of an "omni-everything" Source of Good.  My response:  for that reason, the "Problem of Evil" is a phony problem because it is predicated on the "omni-everything" Entity. We are stuck with human fallibility, human moral cupidity, and human finitude, and, given that, we can only ever, at best, asymptotically approach the New Jerusalem without ever actually arriving. More wars will take place.  Hopefully fewer, but more.  More airliners will be shot down.  Hopefully fewer, but more.  There will be more hatred because of race or sexual orientation or religion or ... whatever. Hopefully less, but more. Not because the gods are who they are.  But because we are who we are.

To paraphrase Cassius in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "The fault ... lies not in our [gods], but in ourselves".

James R. Cowles


  • In my simple world it’s simple . . .
    All rationalizations are rational. All beliefs are believable whether we choose to believe we have free will and/or it’s “God’s will”. I choose to believe that free will resides within immutable scientific and spiritual “laws/truths”. Ultimately, we will all know – I hope to meet you when we do!

    I also believe that pain, suffering, calamity are necessary to nudge our warped human motivation for survival toward the realization we are all connected and unity – John Donne ultimately had it right.

    (“. . .prefrontal lobotomies are hazardous to one’s health . . .” when self-inflicted . . . )

      • It’s precisely the pain/murder of children, disabled et al. that hits home and mobilizes people to promote change.
        Humans are much less tolerant and much more motivated to promote change when the “innocents” are impacted.
        Pain and fear are human motivators in all circumstances.

  • James, your arguments are great! It is why I’ve moved to Process Theology where G*d is not omni. Of course, we then have to define G*d and I’m not sure I can do that. I suppose I’ll go with the Process Theology definition of G*d as “creative, responsive love.”

    • That is a legitimate response. But then does not most, maybe all, of Christian rhetoric have to change. So much of that rhetoric revolves around moral exhortations to “trust God”, to “obey God”, to “have faith in God”, etc., etc. I don’t know if the following is part of your tradition or not. But with those changes, the questions get begged of what basis or justification there is for that level / degree of trust, obedience, & faith is God is not “omni”. E.g., if I have reason to seriously doubt the competence of my surgeon — if I don’t have reason to believe that my surgeon is “omni” vis a vis medicine — why should I be liking to trust her confidence to operate on me? If I think that perhaps the pilot of the airplane doesn’t really know what he is about, maybe I shouldn’t get on the plane. Of course, there are degrees of trust. But traditional Christian rhetoric seems to indicate that faith subsists in an attitude of unreserved & unconditional trust in God. That DEGREE of trust presupposes, it seems to me, that the God we are trusting is a God of “omnis”. The thing is: it’s chasing-my-tail issues like this that convince / convinced me that positing all those “epicycles” was too much trouble, and that my best bet was to “factor out” God altogether, and just rely on my own human rational & considered judgment, especially since that is what I would always end up doing, anyway, once I undertook the task of navigating around all the cracks & crevices in the imperfect competence of a non-omni God. Anyway, such is & remains my best take on the issue.

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