Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sed Contra II

The human experience of evil is a major problem for polytheists, dualists, and atheists. It's also a problem for monotheists, but one I think they can address best.

Polytheists do not face the same problem (since they can believe in conflicts between gods), but as far as I am concerned polytheism is a trivial answer to the problem of evil.

What clearly does work as an answer is radical dualism, i.e. the view that there are two opposing first principles. Variations on this theme which ascribe evil to a created devil figure do not really provide any answers. Note that while some historical dualisms have posited evil as a conflict between spirit and matter are not the only possible versions. In some forms of Zoroastrianism the Good Principle creates the physical world as an arena for the battle between good and evil. The problem with dualism is that while it does explain a conflict, it does not explain why one principle is good and the other evil. To provide such tags requires a level of meaning more fundamental than the two first principles, which are thus not first principles.

Atheists have perhaps a greater problem with evil. Let me be clear, many, perhaps most, theoretical atheists are highly moral people. Indeed, I think the whole argument that one needs to believe in God to be a good person is off kilter. In practice I suspect habit is the major guide in life to being a good person, and a habit of virtue is the way to be a good human being. (Such a position is entirely consistent with theories of behaviour in many varieties of Catholicism and Judaism). But faced with raw evil, atheism has nothing to say. For atheism, theoretical ethics must be nothing more than a combination of innate instincts and contingent social constructions. It is quite possible from such a point of view to condemn certain acts as destructive of social goods, or to come up with a theory of law. It is much more difficult to say certain acts are absolutely wrong. And it is impossible to see as evil the impact of natural forces. Atheists simply cannot coherently say that pain and suffering are evil.

The problem of evil for monotheists is this:- If God is an all powerful then God could create any possible world. There is a possible world without pain and suffering (and even if there is no possible world consistent with free will that has no pain and suffering, there is surely a possible world with much less pain and suffering than this one.) If God could have created a better world than this one, but did not, then God made evil. If God was not able to create a better world, then God is not omnipotent (and thus not, in an important sense, God at all).

There is no easy answer to this, but I think monotheism does provide better answers than the alternatives presented.

First, with God as the unique ground of being, it is possible to identify goodness as identical with Godness. Goodness is simply that which is accord with God. Evil is what is opposed to God.

Second, there is at least one theoretical explanation for evil possible with theism which allows both that human experience of evil is real and yet consistent with God as the ground of being. This is Augustine's notion that evil represents lack of actualisation of God's will. I don't find it entirely convincing as an argument, but it is better, I think, than any other.

Third, actually existing religions try to grapple with evil in an honest way. The Book of Job in the Jewish Bible (i.e. the Christian Old Testament) in a novelistic form addresses the reality of evil as it occurs in a human life. Job presents evil as real, random (i.e. not a proportionate response to some human sin), and ultimately inexplicable. It's only real statement is that the will of God is beyond human comprehension. This is scant comfort, but rather more comforting in fact than an easy answer. Christianity could be said to provide an explanation for evil with it's idea that evil is the result of sin. Now, I do think that the current band of published atheists such as Dawkins avoid the quite real issue of human sin, but I don't think myths of Satan tempting Eve provide much of an answer either. What is striking in Christianity is that it's central story - God incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth - does at least involve God in all the muck and mess of evil in the world.

The Christian version of monotheism does not provide an answer to the problem of evil, any more than does the Book of Job, but it does address the reality of evil (and does not try to cast it as an illusion like eastern religions), and states that God is involved in the mess. That, to me at least, provides some comfort.


Travis said...

The putting of evil in a living form, ie a devil, is, in my opinion, a way for people to give reason or lay blame for evil acts done by people. If a guy kills numerous women and children, most people cannot comprehend why, so they say "the devil made him do it".

In regards to monotheism, it is important to note that the OT, if looked at by itself, has no "devil" or evil enemy of God. Satan, who's Hebrew word means "obstacle", is an employee of God, not his emeny. In teh Book of Job, when Satan challenges the devotion of Job, he is not instigating a wager with God, he is doing his job, as the "procecuting attorney" of the "Holy Court" in making sure that Job really is as devoted as he appears. It is not until the advent of Zoroastorism and the influx of Greek Helenism that there was a cross pollinization of the idea of a "devil" and "hell" (which previously was sheol in the OT, a place where all dead, no matter who they were, went to spend eternity in boredom)

In my interpretation, the OT does not show good and evil, but the idea of God, and absence of God. In the Deuteronomist sense, you follow God, good things happen. You don't do what God wants, bad things happen. (this looks very similar to the modern evolution of Dharma and karma in pop culture, ie "My Name Is Earl"). But there is no evil force, just the force of God, and the lack of his force which makes things worse.

(Damn, this is a long comment)

I regards to why a single God would even tolerate having evil in his domain, and not make humans perfect, that would make humans computers. I think that it is choice that makes life interesting and fun (or sometimes very miserable). Also (this is something that monotheism is not able to address), lots of decisions do not have a clear good and bad choice. They can be both ba and you have to decide which one is the "least bad". The fact that Christian, Muslim, Jewish and many other religious leaders of many dominations cannot decide on many modern issues.

Anonymous said...

"For atheism, theoretical ethics must be nothing more than a combination of innate instincts and contingent social constructions. It is quite possible from such a point of view to condemn certain acts as destructive of social goods, or to come up with a theory of law. It is much more difficult to say certain acts are absolutely wrong. And it is impossible to see as evil the impact of natural forces. Atheists simply cannot coherently say that pain and suffering are evil."

It may be true that some atheists back themselves up into the corner that you've set up for them, but I can see no reason why appeal to God is necessary to defend the claims a) that some acts are absolutely wrong or b) that the impact of natural forces can be evil. More than that, I can see no way in which appeal to God could be sufficient to justify those claims.

What role is God supposed to play in making some acts absolutely wrong? If an act is supposed to be absolutely wrong because God says so, then that won't cut it. God's say-so would simply establish that God said so, and God's promise of post-mortem punishment would do nothing to make the act absolutely wrong; it would simply make it the sort of act that will absolutely lead to damnation. If, on the other hand, the existence of God is supposed to ground absolute prohibitions because some acts are absolutely incompatible with human fulfillment in the form of communion with God, then any teleological moral scheme which sets up a telos with which those acts are absolutely incompatible will yield absolute prohibitions. To see the point, simply think about Aquinas. Aquinas thinks that our nature as earthly beings requires us to develop the natural virtues if we are to flourish; nothing about this part of his philosophy requires his theology. He also believes that our ultimate flourishing in the form of the beatific vision requires us to develop the theological virtues; this part of his philosophy obviously presupposes his theology, but it ultimately justifies absolute prohibitions not because of any special power that God has, but because of the special sort of relationship that God has to human flourishing. Aquinas proves that it is at least theoretically possible to believe in absolute prohibitions without appeal to God, and also that it isn't God's existence that justifies special absolute prohibitions, but rather the special role that God plays in human flourishing. So God is neither necessary nor sufficient to justify absolute prohibitions.

As for natural evils, it seems plain that if a hurricane maims me, and my being maimed is at least a prima facie bad thing, then the hurricane caused a natural evil. The same seems true whether we are talking about a hurricane maiming me or a flood killing a bunch of baby deer. Natural events have consequences that are bad for various types of beings. No problem. In fact, this is only a problem for people who maintain that all of existence is ultimately controlled by an omnipotent power who loves his creatures. For non-theists, the problem of evil isn't a theoretical problem, but a practical one. Evil needs no explanation; it needs to be dealt with.

Believing in God, especially in a God like the one we know from monotheism, almost certainly must make a moral difference. I'm still not convinced that the difference lies in the availability of a coherent and satisfying moral theory.