Friday, July 29, 2005

What Problem?

I just posted a reply to an essay at Pontifications by Michael Liccione, an able and articulate writer who also happens to have some expertise in philosophy. One sometimes hesitates to rush in where angels fear to tread, but his essay--quite well done and also somewhat moving--addresses a philosophical argument about a theological question, and that mix--the attempt of skeptical philosophers to say something meaningful and important about theology--has always made me nervous.

The argument at issus is the so-called Problem of Evil. I write "so-called" because in my opinion it isn't really a problem at all; but it has been a perennial favorite of philosophers since antiquity, and has given rise to a whole sub-division in the philosophy of religion called Theodicy (< Gr. theos, god, + dikê, justice), the investigation into how to reconcile God's justice with the existence of pain, suffering, and evil in the world.

In its barest outline, a simplified version of the Problem of Evil would go something like this:

1. If God is Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnibenevolent, then there will be no evil in the world.
2. But there is evil in the world.
3. Therefore, God is either not Omnipotent, not Omniscient, or not Omnibenevolent.

Since omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence are necessary properties of the God of Christianty, this argument is sometimes taken to prove that God does not exist at all; others take it only to mean that God does not have all of the perfections that are traditionally ascribed to him.

Clearly the first premise is crucial: it claims a necessary connection between God's key properties and the absence of evil in the world. Just as clearly, this premise is open to question. In fact, St Augustine, famously, offered a solution to the problem of evil in the form of a rejection of this first premise, on the grounds that it simply isn't necessary that evil will not exist even if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. Why? Because what evil and suffering does exist in the world is brought about by human agents who possess free will, itself a good thing but capable of producing evil results when used incorrectly (i.e., not in accordance with what God himself wills).

I think it is worth making a methodological point here. Answering the "problem of evil" cannot be necessary for belief for the Christian, since the whole Christian religion, in itself, offes a counter-claim to that first premise in the form of an extremely elaborate explanation as to why there is, in fact, suffering in this particular God's creation. St. Augustine was not the first to recognize this, nor will he be the last--it is at the heart of John Paul the Great's encyclical The Christian Meaning of Human Suffering. So aside from sheer intellectual curiosity--not an ignoble goal in and of itself--the only real purpose in finding a confutation of this problem, for the Christian, will have to be for the purpose of persuading non-believers. That also is not an ignoble goal, but it is not a goal that must necessarily be met in this particular way.

There are plenty of objections that could be raised to the Christian position. Why didn't God create a world in which free creatures freely choose only good things? Why doesn't God intervene to prevent natural disasters, since that would not compromisee free will but it would prevent apparently needless suffering? But these are all hypothetical objections, and they carry force only for those who find it impossible to believe that a world in which free creatures actually fall short of God's will once in a while can be better, in some sense, than a world in which that is a mere potentiality. For the Christian, the human condition would be difficult to make sense of had we never fallen short of God's will. We might be tempted to believe that we are God. Hey, wait a minute--that's what did happen!

Oh well, so much for that problem. For the philosopher, of course, that isn't the end of the story, because the philosopher always wants a solution that doesn't have any loopholes, or at least that has as few loopholes as possible. But because there are about as many different perspectives and first principles in philosophy as there are individual philosophers, it simply isn't possible to construct an argument that has absolutely no loopholes whatsoever, and it is virtually impossible to construct one with few loopholes. So the discussion of this so-called Problem of Evil will continue, not only among philosophers, who find the problem intellectually interesting, but also among believers, who have an honest and salutary desire to make sense of a loving God who permits us to suffer and do evil things. In the end, though, the Christian knows that, however the Holocaust, or Stalin's purges, or natural disasters, might appear to those of us who stand on the sidelines observing the intensity of the pain and the extraordinary numbers of deaths brought about by such things, nevertheless each individual innocent soul is precious to God and is not harmed in the least by the nasty things that might happen to the material body. When the physical suffering is over, these very same innocent individuals, like our own Christian Martyrs, find themselves in a place where every eye is dried and every tear wiped away, a place of peace that surpasses all understanding.

And all philosophical argument.

3 comments:

Mike L said...

Hey Scott, thanks for the reference! I find your discussion helpful too.

If you care to see how that Pontifications thread has developed, just trackback.

NeoChalcedonian said...

(1) Why didn't God create a world in which free creatures freely choose only good things?

(2)Why doesn't God intervene to prevent natural disasters, since that would not compromise free will but it would prevent apparently needless suffering?

I think the Scriptures and the Fathers teach that it was impossible for God to create free agents perfected in virtue, but I wonder whether the epistemic barriers to the answer to Question 2 to are truly impenetrable or not.

L said...

I know that this is an ancient post of yours, but I just found it via a long twisty maze of blogs and links to blogs. From my initial impression, you may have gained another reader. :)

Anyway, I recently wrote my own take on the so-called "problem of evil" which you may find interesting. As a relatively new blogger, I'd take any agreement, insight, or even scathing argument as a kindness. :)