Monday, December 31, 2007

Sunt Lacrimae Rerum

I've just returned from a trip to the American Philosophical Association's annual meeting in Baltimore, where I served as a member of a search committee. We interviewed candidates for a new faculty position in the philosophy department at Ohio University. It was exciting to get to talk to some of the best and brightest up-and-coming young philosophers, but the excitement was tempered by the fact that, in the end, there is only one job to offer and some people are going to go home still looking for work.

But that wasn't the only thought tempering the excitement. The other excitement-tempering thought is a moronic administrative decree that constrains all employment searches at Ohio University. Check it out:
For full-time presidential appointments, there must be at least one candidate from an underrepresented group in each interview pool or the search will not be approved by the Dean, Vice President or planning unit head.
The expression "full-time presidential appointment" is just administrativese for any job that the president of the university has to approve before the hire is finalized, and as such it includes all new faculty hires. So the policy defined above requires that any and every faculty search must include a minority candidate, regardless of said candidate's qualifications relative to other candidates in the pool.

To see how idiotic this policy is, just imagine a candidate pool that consists of, say, 20 applicants. Imagine that three or four of the applicants are from "underrepresented group[s]". Imagine that, of these 20 applicants, you can only bring three or four to your campus for detailed interviews. Now imagine that the top three or four candidates are all white men. Suppose that the three or four minority candidates are all at the bottom of the pool in terms of qualifications for the job. The policy requires that you bring at least one of them to campus anyway, even though you know full well that you have no intention of hiring any of them.

This is not only a remarkably stupid policy, it is a cruel and immoral one as well. When one brings a candidate to campus for an interview, one must treat them like any other candidate: taking them to dinner, talking to them about their work, listening to their lecture, inviting them to teach a class, introducing them to the whole department and to the dean, giving them a tour of the town, etc. All the while it is entirely possible that the candidate will assume that there is a reasonable possibility of obtaining the job, and some candidates may even begin to make provisional plans about the future. And yet the whole thing is a sham, one that the candidate can never be privy to, for if you told the candidate the truth, said candidate would never accept any invitation to campus. If the candidate knew that it was a complete and utter waste of time and effort (not to mention money--the candidates and the department both incur rather substantial monetary losses during this process), surely the candidate would seek employment elsewhere. Indeed, any sane candidate would avoid accepting employment in an institution with such misguided and unethical administrative procedures.

Now it is, of course, fully possible that some minority candidate will be among the top three or four candidates, in which case the minority candidate will be invited to campus without any compulsion or coercion being applied to the hiring unit. That administrators think otherwise is further evidence of the banality of the administrative mind, and its prejudice and bigotry as well, since to put in place a policy that requires people to do what they ordinarily would do as a matter of course is to assume that people will do the wrong thing unless required to do the right thing on pain of punishment. Such paternalism would ordinarily be rightly shunned in academia, but for some reason it is endemic among certain university administrations.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Pain Before Pleasure

There are two formative events having to do with color vision that I can remember from my childhood. The first is the fact that my family did not own a color TV until 1966, and so we would make an annual trek over to the house of my aunt and uncle who did own one so that I could watch The Wizard of Oz in color (at least those parts of it that are actually in color). Not that there's anything wrong with that! The other event was my reading, in the fall of 1968, a wonderful science fiction book for children called The Runaway Robot by Lester Del Rey. In this book the eponymous hero chronicles his journey of self-discovery as he runs away in search of the boy who had previously owned him. What struck me the most about the story when I was a kid, and the only part of it that I can still remember today, is the fact that this robot began the book with black-and-white vision, but at about the mid-point of the story he gets a color-vision camera installed in his head so that he can see in color. I'm not sure a book like this could be published today, for reasons that I will describe below.

Philosophically these two things have little in common. Indeed, they don't have much to do with philosophy either, really, but they put me in mind of the problem of qualia, particularly with respect to colors. When watching The Wizard of Oz I was always blown away when Dorothy got to Oz and everything was suddenly in beautiful, sickeningly over-saturated Technicolor. It was like walking out of the Shadowlands into Reality. And then, just two years after getting color TV myself, I read the story about the robot who finally got to see colors and I constantly tried to imagine what it must have been like to make that transition. (Shades of Frank Jackson [see Journal of Philosophy 83 (1986) 291-295].) Aristotle, famously, at the very beginning of his treatise on metaphysics, noted that vision is the most precious of our sensory modalities, and I have sometimes thought that color vision is a particularly delightful manifestation of that specific modality. I have no idea what it would be like to see, for example, the wavelengths of light that a bee can detect, but after my rather chromatically eventful childhood I think I can say with some confidence that I would rather see in color than in black and white. Perhaps it is really true, as some have averred, that one learns to appreciate something all the more when one comes to be familiar with the privation of the thing (more dreck from my childhood: "they've paved paradise, put up a parking lot...you don't know what you've got till it's gone", etc.). I have no particular reason to envy the bee her capacity to find flowers by detecting the ultraviolet light reflected from them; having never experienced such a thing I am unable to feel the privation. But if I were to wake up tomorrow morning seeing what Dorothy saw in Kansas in The Wizard of Oz, I would be heartbroken.

I have been put in mind of all this by two separate episodes. First, there is this marvelous post from Fr. Al Kimel at his quasi-moribund site, Pontifications. There he writes of the contrast that he feels between good and evil, and the intensity of that contrast leads him to reject the Augustinian predestination that has come to dominate Reformed theology in particular but certain elements of orthodox theology (though perhaps not Orthodox theology) as well. And he speaks directly to my heart of hearts when he writes:
There are many days, too many days, when I do not know if I believe in God, when I do not know if God exists. But I do know whom I struggle to believe. He is the God made known in Jesus Christ. He is the God who is a holy communion of absolute love and gladness. He is the God who searches for the one lost sheep and upon finding it hoists it upon his shoulder and restores it to the flock. He is the God who turns his house upside down until he finds the one silver coin he has lost. He is the God who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our inquities; by his stripes we are healed. This is the only God worthy of our belief. This is the only God deserving of our faith and adoration.
When I read that, I nearly wept. I am so there with him. Some may worry that this will lead to the universalism von Balthasar is sometimes accused of endorsing. If God is so all-forgiving, why do Christians tremble? Fr. Kimel answers with gimlet clarity:
I do not fear the God who is Holy Trinity. I fear my own freedom to turn from this God, to hide myself in an impenetrable egotism and despair which will forever close me to the roar of his love. I fear that my self-will will ultimately triumph over my desire for the supreme and ultimate Good. I fear that I am becoming, have become, a person who declares to infinite Love, “My will, not thine, be done.” I fear also the purifying suffering that I must endure, both in this life and beyond, to free me from my bondage to self and the goods of this world. But I do not fear the God of Jesus Christ. I know that if God does truly exist, then at the moment of my death he will meet me as the Crucified, still bearing the marks of his sacrifice on his hands. Judge and Judged, Priest and Victim, absolver of sins and victor over death—to this Jesus I entrust my future; to his Father I commend my spirit.
To see how all of this is connected to how I began--to color vision, privation, and, of course, my title--I turn now to the second recent episode that got me to thinking along these lines.

I happened to remark recently to an old friend that I always put off getting a Christmas tree until 17 December. Sometimes this is just a matter of chance--sometimes I just don't get around to getting one until then. But even when I think of it earlier, I still put it off, and my friend asked why. I answered that I like to keep Advent and Christmas distinct. Her response: "Why do you like to keep Advent and Christmas distinct? Pain before pleasure?" I was struck by her question. I don't really think of Advent as a season of pain, though it is indeed a season of penitence. So my initial reaction was to reject the question as not well-formed. I thought of saying something along the lines of "come now, Advent is a season of preparation, not of pain, we make use of it to give ourselves time to ponder the great mystery of the Incarnation, and the reasons why the Incarnation was necessary." But as soon as I thought it, I realized I could not say it, because the word "necessary" reminded me that things could have been different had humankind made a different choice. Although Advent is not a time of "pain before pleasure", there is certainly a kind of mental anguish that is rightly associated with the regret we all ought to feel over the tendency, so eloquently described by Fr. Al, that humankind exhibits, to choose wrongly. This mental anguish is only just balanced by what we have gained in return: our "happy fault", the "necessary sin of Adam" has gained for us a Redeemer beyond our wildest expectations. But, as Galadriel warned the Fellowship, our "Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stray but a little and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while all the Company is true."

We are in a rather wonderful position: we are fully aware of just what it means to be standing upon the edge of a knife. If we were not acquainted with sin at all--if humankind never chose wrongly--we would have no more sense of the value of staying true than we have of what it would be like to perceive ultraviolet light. Don't get me wrong--we might have some sense of it. Even though I do not possess any gold coins, I can certainly imagine the value of having some. I do not want to make a rather elementary mistake here, a mistake that my students often make. Some of my students insist that Good could not exist without Evil; when I ask them why, they always answer an ontological question with an epistemological answer--they always say that we would never be able to recognize the Good if there were no Evil with which to contrast it. I know that my own readers are far too sophisticated to make this mistake--it should be obvious that the Good can exist in the absence of any and all evil, since God existed before anything else did and he is perfect Goodness. Whether or not it is possible to comprehend what the Good is without first (or also) comprehending what Evil is is irrelevant to the ontological question, but it is an interesting question in its own right: if we had never experienced Evil, we may very well know what the Good is (since we would be experiencing it directly), but is it possible that we would fall short, somehow, of fully and completely understanding just how good the Good is? Is it at all possible that we have a more thorough appreciation for God's perfect Goodness just insofar as we ourselves fall short of it? Is our experience of God more like Dorothy's experience of Oz or more like Dorothy's experience of Kansas, and how would we ever be able to know the difference if we had not experienced both? If it is really true that I appreciate color vision more because I can imagine what it would be like to see only in black and white, then perhaps it is possible to appreciate God's loving kindness more if one has some idea of what it would be like to turn away from that loving kindness. My daughter, who was born in 2001, had never seen any black and white images until I showed her a DVD of The Wizard of Oz. She was startled and a little disturbed by the Kansas scenes at the beginning of the film and, interestingly, she didn't even know what to call them, how to describe them. She asked me "Why is it...it's all...why is it like that?" I'm not sure what she would make of The Runaway Robot, in which a reader must try to imagine the difference between black and white and color, but the author clearly expects his reader to be able to imagine just such a thing on the basis of some sort of experience of the two.

I have begun to suspect that we have an instance here of God's divine providence. I quoted from The Lord of the Rings above, but really the more appropriate text from that author here would be the AinulindalĂ«, in which Eru effects a transformation of the musical theme that results in Melkor's malicious interference having, in the end, an effect Melkor did not intend, an effect that was ultimately good. God knew, before we fell, that we would fall; but although the fall itself is not a good thing, a good thing came of it: we got to see God literally face to face in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and we got to experience God's love in more ways than we would have been able to experience it had we not fallen. If we had not fallen, we would never have experienced God's mercy, his compassion, his forgiveness, nor would we have witnessed his example of abandonment of self in the service of others. Though we are worse off, in one sense, for having fallen, we are better off, in another sense, for if we "remain true" we are blessed (makarioi hoi katharoi tĂȘi kardiai), and will see God.

So I do not say that Advent is "Pain before pleasure"; rather, I say that Advent is the pain that makes the pleasure more clear, more present. We sing, at the Easter Vigil, of the "necessary sin of Adam"; Adam's sin was not "necessary" in any deterministic, Predestinarian sense. It was necessary in a wonderful and good sense: necessary in the sense that, without it, we would not have needed the Incarnation. Just as Plato, in the Gorgias described pleasure as the process of satisfying a privation, I suggest that God's love is the more clearly seen and appreciated by the person who has turned away from it and experienced the sorrow and desolation of sin and then turned back to God in repentance. This is not to say that one ought to turn away from God in order to experience his love more intensely! Far from it! St. Paul was already warning against this idea in his letter to the Romans: it would be wrong to sin all the more that grace might abound. Rather, the intensity of spiritual feeling experienced by the penitent is the good that God can bring out of the evil that we do when we turn away from him, it is his transformation of our disharmonious themes into ever more beautiful music.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The No. 1 Lady Amazon Book Reviewer

That would be "Harriet Klausner", who has written (so Amazon.com claims) 15,358 book reviews for Amazon.com since 22 November 1999. That's an average of 5.2 book reviews per day, by the way, which makes Harriet Klausner either one of the most prolific readers on the planet or else one of the most thinly disguised marketing strategies ever designed by the pulp-fiction industry. And she's not just the No. 1 Lady Amazon Book Reviewer, she's the No. 1 Reviewer overall, her next closest competitor being "Lawrance M. Bernabo", with 6666 reviews written since 30 August 2000 (a mere 2.5 book reviews per day).

I'm shocked--shocked!--to find that some of the writers of comments to "Harriet Klausner's" reviews suspect that she is either not a real person, or not a single person, or just a bored librarian banally copying blurbs off the backs of third-rate detective novels as they come in to her library (the vast majority of her reviews are of detective novels, and her average rating is five stars). Imagine Amazon.com doing a thing like that, just to help publishers sell books. It's downright...commercial!

Full disclosure: "Harriet Klausner" did not actually review The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. Too bad: if she had, I'm sure she would have given it a well-deserved five stars.

Oh, and I am Reviewer number 45,693.

Ouch.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Utter Collapse of American Civilization

From today's New York Times:
None of the leading presidential candidates majored in Latin. Hillary Clinton studied political science at Wellesley, as did Barack Obama at Columbia. Rudy Giuliani had a minor brush with the language during four years of theology at Bishop Loughlin Memorial High School in Brooklyn when he toyed with becoming a priest. But then he went on to major in guess what? Political science.

How things have changed since the founding fathers.

Of the 7,000 books originally in Thomas Jefferson’s library, only a couple of dozen are still at Monticello. The rest were sold off by his descendants, and eventually bought back by the Library of Congress. The best-thumbed of those remaining — on a glassed-in shelf in Jefferson’s study — is a copy of Virgil’s “Aeneid.”

Jefferson started learning Latin and Greek at age 9 at a school in Virginia run by a Scottish clergyman. When he was at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, a Greek grammar book was always by his side. Tacitus and Homer were his favorites.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Bringing Out the Big Guns

If you thought that the arguments of such intellectuals as Danniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins were the biggest threat to the rational status of religious belief, you've been reading the wrong books. Those guys are kindergarteners compared to this guy.

With brainiacs like him arrayed against us, what's there to worry about?

Friday, November 30, 2007

Lord, When Were You Needy and I Didn't Help You?

If, like me, you find yourself constantly strapped for cash and wondering how you're going to manage to get Christmas gifts for your children, you can perhaps console yourself by imagining how lucky you are that you're not wondering how you're going to manage to get to see your children at all for Christmas. The friends and admirers of Dr. Michael Liccione (in whose number I feel privileged to be able to count myself) can rejoice with him in the birth of his new granddaughter, but we must, at the same time, grieve with him that the vicissitudes of life have made it extremely unlikely that he will be able to see this new grandchild any time soon.

Unless....

Aspiciens autem Iesus dixit illis: "Apud homines hoc impossibile est, apud Deum autem omnia possibilia sunt."

If you go over to Sacramentum Vitae right now, and scroll down past the blogroll and past the referers list, past the picture of BXVI and the pictures of "relevant books", there is a widget that will allow you to "support this site today". Do it now.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Platonism and Christianity

Taylor Marshall of Canterbury Tales has an interesting post up about the "direction of causation", as it were, between Christianity and Neoplatonism. On any reading of the Church Fathers it is a relatively easy matter to point to various elements of their metaphysics and theology--especially terminological elements, but also some substantial ones--and draw parallels to similar elements in Neoplatonism. Taylor points out that Plotinus, who is often cited as the "founder" of Neoplatonism, was taught his Plato by the Christian Ammonius.

Although it is an interesting point, I think it's worth pointing out that Platonism, as such, was unavoidable in antiquity, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, and talk of direction of influence will always be hopelessly underdetermined by the data. It is possible to find possible Platonic elements even in the writing of St. Paul, if one uses one's imagination, and of course, it is not only possible, but indeed quite likely, that a man who was educated in that area at the time that St. Paul was getting his education would be learning from men who had read some Plato, so....

The temptation by some Christians to dismiss the influence of Platonism is strange to me. I once knew a man, a very old-fashioned Catholic, who would condemn any view held by Protestants. I asked him, "What about the Trinity? Protestants believe in the Trinity, should we reject that view, too?" I was basically kidding, but the guy was thoroughly stumped. That's what happens when you wed yourself to a particular ideological view of history. The same man was not in the least bit disturbed by St. Thomas Aquinas's frequent allusions to "The Philosopher" (i.e., Aristotle). "That's different", he would say. "Aquinas was merely using Aristotle." The idea being, I guess, that there are certain kinds of cases where the idea isn't merely being "used".

To me, it doesn't matter where the idea came from, just so long as it's true (or, indeed, useful). Some of Plato's ideas were manifestly true, even from a Christian perspective (for example, the idea that the Good transcends being, or the idea that morality is not a matter of mere subjective experience). It is a mistake to maintain that truth began with Christianity, or that Christianity could never learn from Platonists. To what extent and in what specific ways Christianity learned from Platonism will, necessarily, remain somewhat mysterious, but that it did cannot rationally be denied.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Don't Say I Didn't Tell You

In a story in today's New York Times we learn what most rational folks suspected all along: you don't really need embryos to do stem-cell-like research anyway. As soon as the stem cell debate got under way in earnest a few years back, anyone who opposed it, even for principled reasons (or sometimes because of one's principled reasons), was seen as some sort of troglodytic moron living in the middle ages and benightedly ignorant of the aims and needs of science. Objections about doing unethical research on "human beings" were dismissed as quaintly unscientific and out of touch with modern reality.

Now it turns out that you can create stem-cell-like cells out of human skin cells just by adding four genes. To put it more bluntly, there is no need either to make or destroy human embryos in order to carry out this research.

Will there be any apologies from the Forces of Evil? Don't hold your breath, since they would approve of stem cell research even if it required killing everyone's grandmother to get the cells. But today's story certainly underlines a point that is often overlooked in the rush to judgment of the utilitarian crowd: in addition to the fact, which I have already noted in earlier posts on this subject, that some advances in science may not be worth the price we have to pay in order to gain them, we may add the fact that limited technology ought not to be used as an excuse to do the inexcusable. Some folks seemed to think that stem cell research was the silver bullet that was going to eradicate a whole host of nasty human ailments, and they thought this without any empirical evidence to support the idea; but more importantly, these folks were willing to toss any argument against them out the window without even considering pursuing alternative research strategies. In short, many early proponents of stem cell research were arrogant as well as short sighted and unethical.

Now we learn that any embryos that have been destroyed in this line of research were killed to no purpose whatsoever.

We live in debauched times, but at least some of us can now act all superior about it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Ratzinger via Liccione

Dr. Mike Liccione remains the hardest working Catholic blogger in town. Today he has posted a wonderful meditation on some of BXVI's thoughts on the relationship betwenn Scripture and doctrine, with what is, to me, a particularly interesting note on Jewish readings of Scripture.

As usual, highly recommended reading.

Update: There's a rather lively debate going on in the combox to that post now, with particularly challenging and thoughtful responses from Owen the Ochlophobist, who also has a rather lengthy post of his own up on closely related matters.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Equivocating on "Should"

According to a story in today's New York Times:
Researchers in Oregon are reporting that they used cloning to produce monkey embryos and then extracted stem cells from the embryos.

Not only is this the first time such cells have been produced in any animal other than a mouse, but the method, the researchers say, should also work in humans.
The method should also work in humans. The "plain sense" of that, of course, is that the method will probably work in humans even though it hasn't been tested yet. But it certainly raises the question of whether the method should be tried in humans. In order to test the method, human clones will be needed, and once you have cloned a human being, well, you have another human being, and you need to decide what to do with that new human being once you've harvested its stem cells. I suppose you just throw it away when you're done with it.

Needless to say, the folks who conduct such experiments don't regard what they're doing as "throwing away human beings". They're throwing away "tissue" or "embryos" or "blorgas" (here the word "blorga" is just a term I made up to use instead of "human being" because I don't want people to think that I'm throwing away human beings). So there's equivocating about more than just the word "should" going on around here. many scientists reject essentialism, and so they think that the question whether an embryo is also a "human being" is a meaningless question to begin with, but you don't have to be an essentialist to think that an embryo is a human being. Hadley Arkes has offered some rather illuminating arguments against the view that a human embryo could possibly count as anything other than a human being in moral terms in his book, First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), one of the best introductions to moral realism that I have read.

Our culture becomes increasingly utilitarian in its orientation as we desire more and more of the comforts of life. This is one reason why the so-called "problem of evil" is such a puzzler for some folks: since they define happiness strictly in materialistic terms, they cannot fathom the possibility that physical suffering is anything but evil. While it is, indeed, a sign of evil, since Christ's sacrifice it has not had the same ontological status that materialists almost universally give it. When it comes to medical ethics, then, it comes as no surprise to find that many people are willing to do whatever it takes to gain new medical knowledge, if they think that the payoff will be great enough. The Nazis made some important discoveries about hypothermia by submerging prisoners of war, Jews, and others into freezing cold water and studying the effects. Recently the data that they collected was discovered in an archive, and there was great interest in it. From an ethical point of view, of course, we wouldn't allow folks to gather scientific evidence these days by doing experiments on unwilling human subjects, but this was a long time ago, and some people figured, hey, why not use the data? Other objected that it would be ethically wrong to use such data, given the way it was collected, because to use it would be to make it even more valuable and, hence, to encourage others to collect data however they can.

There is a popular thought experiment in medical ethics classes that asks: if you could find a cure for a disease that kills thousands of people annually by directly killing 500 people in experimental studies this year, would you do it? Most people say no, but I wonder whether that will remain true as our society grows ever more addicted to living longer and healthier. At first it's the embryos that get directly killed, because they don't exactly look human and they don't occupy the same place in our web of social commitments, but who's to say that we won't expand the domain of expendables if we need to? Maybe the handicapped? Those who are already dying of some incurable disease? The mentally ill? Criminals on death row? Will we be willing to draw the line somewhere, even if we wind up on the wrong side of that line? There have been, throughout history, plenty of people who would refuse to do certain things even if doing those things had a certain kind of payoff that benefited others. Generally, these are people for whom the consequences of a given act do not make it right or wrong. Bringing back public evisceration as a form of punishment might have a very strong deterrent effect, but few would say that the positive payoff would really outweigh the terrible wrongness of the act itself.

At least, few people these days. As we grow ever more utilitarian in our outlook, who can say that we will always feel the same way?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Impossible Possibilities

Patrick of Orthonormal Basis (a quondam theist who now kibitzes from the sidelines), suggests that the recent discussion of the problem of evil [PE] in the Catholic blogosphere has been defective insofar as it has not taken seriously the possibility that God could have created a world in which moral agents always choose only the good, and their choices are always freely made. The claim is that, if God is truly omnibenevolent, and such a world is a possible one, then clearly God ought to have created such a world, because such a world is obviously better than one in which some agents choose evil over good, even if those choices are also freely made.

I've heard this argument before (it has sometimes been attributed to J. L. Mackie, but Mackie himself never articulated the argument in its full form or analyzed any of the objections to it), along with many others that rely on so-called "possible worlds" models, and I'm still baffled as to why anybody would take it seriously. It tries to draw a distinction along the following lines. Let [W1] and [W2] stand for two possible worlds as follows:
[W1] The actual world as we know it.

[W2] A world that is identical to this world, only all human choices are freely for the good.
The obvious (and simplistic) claim is that [W2] is a manifestly better world than [W1], in which some human choices are for evil rather than for good. The less obvious (because merely implicit), but more important claim, is that [W2] is a possible world.

Clearly, this sort of proposal addresses only my category (c) of possible evils, so as a general response to the Catholic critique of PE it is worthless, but it certainly raises an interesting question: regardless of what the logical difference is between [W1] and [W2], what possible ontological difference could there be? In short, even if we grant that [W2] is logically possible, do we have any reason to grant that it is possible simpliciter, i.e., could such a logically possible world ever be an actual world?

Obviously, from an ontological point of view, [W1] is identical to [W2]. There is no reason at all why all human beings in [W1] could not always and freely choose only the good. So the only difference between [W1] and [W2] is that in [W1] some human beings have, as a matter of historical fact, sometimes chosen other than the good, while in [W2]...well, [W2] doesn't actually exist, does it? So in [W2] nobody has ever chosen anything, either good or evil. So one difference between [W1] and [W2], perhaps, is this: in [W1] it is clear that the agents really are free, whereas in [W2] we have no reason to believe that the agents are really free, other than the fact that it is so stipulated by the objection. The objection is, of course, a purely logical one, namely, that there could be a world in which some people freely choose only the good, but to take the libertarian notion of freedom seriously we need to move beyond the realm of purely logical possibility and ask what the connection to reality is supposed to be in imagining a world of free agents who do not, as a matter of fact, exhibit any evidence of being free. According to our mythology, even the angels, far more perfect beings than we, are manifestly free since many of them fell with Satan. I have yet to hear a convincing story about what talk of "possible worlds" could possibly amount to in the "real world", but it is a favorite of philosophers so we'll just have to make do. It is supposed to be a convenient way to talk about possibilities without committing oneself to anything, but as a method of discussing how things really are and why--that is, as an avenue towards explaining the actual--it is basically useless. There is, after all, a possible world in which gravity has the opposite effect to the one we're used to, but thinking about such a world tells us nothing at all about this world, or why gravity works the way it does rather than the opposite way. And yet some people, even some philosophers, continue to think that talk of "possible worlds" can be a useful explanatory hermeneutic for this world.

In one sense, the world that God created already is [W2] rather than [W1]. When God created the heavens and the earth, he saw that it was good. Adam and Eve (so the mythology goes) lived for a while without choosing evil before the time at which they did, as a matter of history, choose evil. So for some finite length of time from creation until the fall it would have been true of this world that human agents were free and chose only the good, and the distinction between [W1] and [W2] would have seemed meaningless. It is really a matter of historical accident that we happen to be living at a time when the question can be raised at all, and yet, of course, it could have been the case that the fall hadn't happened yet, in which case this version of PE would have seemed absurd. So let's posit two more worlds, [W3] and [W4]:
[W3] A world identical to this world except for the fact that, so far, no human agent has ever chosen evil.

[W4] A world identical to [W3] except for the fact that on 1 January 2525, some human somewhere will freely choose evil rather than good.
Empirically, there is no difference--right now!--between [W2] and either [W3] or [W4], so if it weren't for the first sin we would have no way of knowing which of these (and infinitely many more) possible worlds we actually inhabit. But of course, we don't inhabit any of those worlds, we happen to inhabit [W1], and it is this fact that supposedly gives the atheist his purchase against the theist in PE. But it is precisely the logical character of this whole scenario that does the atheist in in the end.

It is obviously logically possible for there to be a world composed entirely of free beings who always choose good rather than evil. However, it does not follow from the fact that this is a logically possible world that God could actually cause such a world to exist. In order to be susceptible to the objection at issue here, any possible world under discussion will also have the property "created by God", since the objector is trying to establish that there is some sort of contradiction involved in a possible world that has both the property of having been created by God as well as the property of containing evil, or containing human agents who have, as a matter of historical fact, chosen evil rather than good. Now, it is essential to see that in spite of his omnipotence, there are certain logical constraints on what God can and cannot create. For example, although there is no logical contradiction involved in the concept of a being that is ontologically dependent on no other being, clearly God cannot create such a being, since the very fact of being a created being is a sufficient condition for not being a being that is not ontologically dependent on any other being. Indeed, God is the only being that is not ontologically dependent on any other being, and God did not create himself, and no other being created him, else he would not be such a being.

So the fact that a certain state of affairs is logically possible does not entail that an omnipotent being could bring about such a state of affairs. So let's return to the state of affairs described by [W2]. Ex hypothesi, it is an essential property of [W2] that it is "created by God". As in our own mythology, we may imagine this world starting off with human agents who freely choose only good. What then? Does God wait around, hoping for the best? Does he keep his fingers crossed, hoping against hope that Eve does not eat that fruit? This would, of course, be logically consistent with what actually did happen: in [W1] things began well and then went south as free beings exercised their freedom to choose evil rather than good.

In order for God to create [W2]--a world in which all the agents are free but in which it is necessarily the case that no free agent will ever choose evil--God would have to insure that the free beings in [W2] never use their freedom to choose evil rather than good. Since God's will cannot be resisted (this is entailed by omnipotence), if God were to insure that these free beings never choose evil it would follow by logical necessity that these beings are not, in fact, free to choose evil and, hence, they are not really free and, hence, their choices for the good are not free. It is here that the incoherence of the objection becomes apparent: the atheist asks us to imagine a world in which the agents are free in a libertarian sense and yet unable to do evil. But it is part of the libertarian conception of freedom that agents may choose to do evil as well as good. Hence, it is logically contradictory to suppose that God could have created free beings who inevitably did only good and never evil. So although a world in which all choices are freely for the good is a logical possibility in the sense that it does not contain any internal logical contradictions, it is impossible for such a world to be brought into existence in the order of time in such a way that all beings would perdure in goodness until the end of time, for being actualized in the way necessary for the objection to go through would be logically incompatible with the libertarian thesis that is part of the description of the world as required by the objection.

But this is only half the story, the half answering to the property of omnipotence. The other half of the objection relies on God's omniscience. Just as God is believed to be able to do any act that is able to be done, so too we may define God's omniscience this way:
[K] For any and every object of knowledge k, God knows k.
We define omniscience this way in order to avoid sophistic questions about whether God can know the unknowable, just as we defined omnipotence in such as way as to avoid sophistic questions about whether God can do the impossible.

So now imagine a story along the following lines (I am adapting an example from the book of my colleague, James Petrik, that I mentioned in an earlier post). You are planning a party at your house, and you are going to invite your colleague Joe, and you know that Joe has a very wicked temper. In fact, it is extremely likely that Joe will insult your other guests and make them extremely uncomfortable, because he just can't keep his tongue to himself, and he says things that are insulting and hurtful to other people almost as a matter of course. But you also know this: when Mary is around, Joe is a completely different person. He admires Mary very much, and when she is around he behaves himself perfectly. So you invite Mary to the party as well, knowing that her presence will be like balm to Joe, and you see to it that she is seated next to Joe at dinner. Now as far as epistemic agency goes, you are very limited, and yet we can imagine a scenario like this working quite well: even with your limited knowledge you can bring off a fairly successful dinner party just by inviting the right people, and in doing so you can bring about a better state of affairs than otherwise would have obtained, and you have done so without interfering with either Joe's or Mary's moral freedom. If you, in your limited knowledge, can bring about a better state of affairs in this way, why cannot God, with unlimited knowledge, bring about a better state of affairs for all human agents, by arranging the denouement of our worldly affairs in such a way that we are influenced always to choose the good, just as Joe was subtly influenced to act better just because Mary was there?

This half of the objection turns on what God could have known, and when he could have known it. For you, planning a dinner party, it is possible that your success in bringing about a better state of affairs than would otherwise have obtained depends upon your knowing things that can only be known empirically, that is, you know Joe fairly well because some of his behaviors are habitual and you have observed them over time or heard reports from others about them. The fact that some of Joe's behaviors re habitual need not be construed as compromising his moral freedom: I think, in fact, that there are plenty of versions of virtue ethics out there that construe virtue as a matter of habit and that are also fully compatible with libertarianism. God, of course, is said to be omniscient in the sense defined above and so we must wonder: could he, at least in principle, know how people will behave prior to their actually behaving in a certain way, if we assume that the behaviors follow from the free choice of the will?

In one sense it is clearly possible to know contingent matter of fact before they obtain, provided one employs the proper method of hypothetical reasoning about a deterministic system. For example, every highly skilled pool player has reliable knowledge of the future that can be schematized in the following way:
If I strike the cue ball in such-and-such a way, then the striped balls will necessarily come to rest here, here, and here.
The reliability of the player's knowledge, of course, requires that the system be deterministic. If we introduce genuine randomness into the picture, then the reliability of the knowledge disappears. Suppose, for example, that we are playing with a cue ball that is of such a character as to be liable to explode at a random time. I strike the cue ball thinking to sink the 15 ball in the corner pocket; I am a highly skilled player, so necessarily the 15 ball will go into that pocket--provided the cue ball actually reaches the 15 ball. But prior to striking the 15 ball the cue ball explodes and the 15 ball remains in its place. There is one sense in which I could have been said to "know" that the 15 ball would wind up in the corner pocket--it would have come to rest there if the cue ball had struck it with the proper velocity, at the correct angle, with the correct English, etc. But the cue ball ceased to exist in a way that could not be foreknown since it was a random, i.e., uncaused, event, and so there is another sense in which I did not, in fact, "know" that the 15 ball would wind up in the corner pocket, since it is impossible to know what is not in fact the case.

Human agency, according to the libertarian, is completely free, and in order for this to have any meaning at all it must mean that human agency is uncaused. It is not enough to stipulate that human agency be random in some sense, because we can imagine random human behavior that is still caused by something external to the agent and, hence, not really free. For example, imagine a device that can be hooked up to a human brain, and this device determines our choices for us, but it does so by means of generating random numbers. If the random number is even, we take one course of action, if the number is odd we take a different course of action. This means that our behavior will be erratic, even indeterministic, but it does not mean that we are free, since our choices are still due to something external to us. So in order for moral freedom to mean anything at all it must mean that our free choices are (at least in principle) uncaused. If they are uncaused, then they cannot be objects of knowledge prior to their actual occurrence in time, hence not even an omniscient being could know them prior to their actual occurrence in time, hence an omniscient being could not "set things up" in such a way as to anticipate and subtly influence such free choices.

Returning to our dinner party for a moment, suppose you say to yourself, "I'm not all that sure Joe will even come to this party, but I'll invite Mary anyway, just in case he does come." In short, we can hedge our bets: we can admit that we don't really know for sure what's going to happen, but we can set things up in such a way that if things went in a direction that might go wrong, we've got the system set up in such a way as to minimize the net evil effect. So why can't God do this? Maybe he can't know what a genuinely uncaused free choice will be, but he can still set things up in a certain way "just in case". But as soon as it is admitted that God is doing what Einstein said he doesn't do--playing dice--the objection fails, since to admit this much is to admit that God cannot set things up in such a way that there will necessarily be no evil, any more than the skilled pool player can leave himself a fine succeeding shot as a matter of absolute logical necessity when there is an unknowable but greater than zero chance that the cue ball will explode during a shot. Hence, if any possible world should manifest evil in my category (c), it cannot be the case that God could have foreseen and prevented such evil if the agent who made the choice for evil was genuinely free in a libertarian sense.

This is the death knell for the logical version of the Problem of Evil, but it is worth noting that most atheists have already abandoned this sort of approach and rely instead on what can be called the Probabilistic Problem of Evil [PPE] which differs from [PE] insofar as it does not claim that the Christian conception of God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil, but rather PPE claims only that the existence of evil makes it less likely that God exists. Radical defenders of PPE hold that the evils of this world are such as to make the existence of God highly unlikely. It is worth noting that the defenders of PPE do not recognize evil of category (c) as being anywhere near as troubling as the Christian thinks it to be. Instead they are principally worried about the problem of physical suffering, which I have already indicated is simply an instance of the naturalist fallacy. It is tempting to write specifically against PPE, but since I just cannot motivate myself to take PPE very seriously given the abysmally naive picture of evil it employs, I will rest my case with this post.

Sensible Thoughts on Plain Sense

Dr. Michael Liccione has a fascinating post up today on the topic of the "plain sense [meaning] of scripture" that has been such a plaything of late among the Catholic and Protestant bloggers. Mike's contribution today puts things into extremely clear focus for me, and I expect it will move things along a good bit.

In today's post Mike draws upon an argument of St. Thomas Aquinas the holds that there is an analogous relation between knowledge and faith, and the analogy is quite interesting. Epistemologists typically draw a distinction between a true belief, on the one hand, and genuine knowledge on the other hand, by pointing to some token of warrant or justification as a boundary condition between the two mental states. Aquinas talks of understanding the proof of the item of knowledge as the proper form of warrant. In his dialog called Meno Plato has Socrates say that true belief is about as good as knowledge for the most part, but in other dialogs Plato suggests that, when it gets right down to brass tacks, there is in fact a specific difference between them.

So, too, Aquinas argues, there is a difference between genuine faith and something else that is like faith but that, in the end, is not the genuine article because it does not have the proper necessary condition to mark off the difference between a mental state that is genuine faith as opposed to a mental state that is "as good as" faith, that is, a state that is consistent with faith but not identical to it. I am reminded here of Kant's distinction between acts that are done from duty as opposed to acts that are done in accordance with duty. Two acts may appear identical--for example, two different shopkeepers may charge the same, fair price for their goods--and yet there may be a significant moral difference between them. The agent who acts from duty charges the fair price for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do, whereas the agent who acts in accordance with duty does the right thing--he charges the fair price--but he only does so for some ulterior motive, such as wanting to maintain a customer base or to prevent his shop from going out of business. In the domain of faith, then, we can think of two individuals who assent to the same proposition, but who differ with respect to whether their assent is from faith or merely in accordance with faith. When the person assents to the proposition because it is the teaching of the Church, his assent is from faith, he is trusting in something external to himself, while the person who assents to the proposition merely because it is consistent with his own reason and is the decision of his own conscience, his assent is merely in accordance with faith, that is, it is what is required of a faithful person, but it differs from genuine faith.

As usual, Mike does an excellent job of taking this argument from Aquinas and applying it to contemporary theological discourse, and I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

Administrators From Hell

When I first started working at Ohio University there was nobody in the department of philosophy whose specialization was ethics. This was something of a problem, since ethics, along with metaphysics and epistemology, is arguably one of the most important components of any decent philosophy program. So we went to the dean with a request for money to hire someone with that specialization. In rejecting our request the dean said that she and her staffing committee didn't think that ethics had anything to do with philosophy and that the people already in the department should teach ethics themselves if they think it's so important.

Happily there is a new dean these days who knows a little more about the structures of the traditional humanities departments, and we now have a full-time ethicist on board. This is good not only for our department, but for the university, which can now claim to have a real philosophy department, instead of just a pretend one. To be fair to the old dean, her staffing committee obviously didn't know any more about the humanities than she did, but it is rather remarkable how administrators can get it into their heads that the academic parts of a university work for them, rather than the other way around.

I was reminded of all this after reading this brief story about excavations of Aristotle's Lyceum in Athens. The site was discovered in 1996 and it has yet to garner the sort of attention it deserves because the ministry of culture doesn't really understand what it is the site of. To some administrators, if there aren't any dramatic marble columns with magnificent stone carvings, then it isn't tourist-worthy and doesn't get any funding. I suppose such attitudes are marginally better than Talibanesque statue destruction, but it raises again the question of just whom it is that these administrators think they work for.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Yes, but Which Head?

The Maverick Philosopher has linked to a London Telegraph article listing the stupidest laws, by category. My favorite British one: It is illegal to die in the houses of Parliament. My favorite foreign (i.e., non-British) one: In Ohio, it is illegal to get a fish drunk.

Fortunately, I was living in North Carolina the last time I did that.

A very close second: In Indonesia, the penalty for masturbation is decapitation.

Grade Inflation is Everywhere

After reading through John Farrell's post on the Church's attitude towards science, I browsed a little and found this entry linking to a "blog reading level" test site. FarrellMedia did well, meriting a "College (Postgrad)" reading level.

Very impressive, John! Oh well, I guess while I'm at it I'll just go ahead and test An Examined Life, not that these things mean anything, you know...tum te tum tum...

Hmmm...whatta ya know:

cash advance

Authentic Christian Humanism

One of the most disappointing things about some of the recent tensions between science and religion is the rupture it represents in the smooth flow of history. There isn't any rationally compelling reason why scientists can't have deeply held religious beliefs, or why Christians cannot pursue science with as much passion as anything else, but because of a few ignoramuses on both sides of the present Kulturkampf the fun is being spoiled for everybody. Since one of my own particular professional interests is the history and philosophy of science, I am keenly aware of the important and valuable contributions made by religious figures to the growth and development of natural philosophy. I have been especially interested in the biological writings of St. Albert the Great, for example, as well as the speculations of such writers as Erasmus, St. Thomas More, and others who contributed to the rise of humanism in the 16th century. Because the rise of humanism coincided with a resurgence of empiricism and materialism during the same period, some religious writers today are unreasonably suspicious of anything that they think smacks of "secular" humanism, including what some think to be an excessive devotion to science, dubbed by some "scientism".

This is unfortunate, but for the most part it seems to be confined to largely evangelical circles. However, some Catholics are also jumping on this bandwagon, and it is interesting to consider how this banal idea that there could be a significant disconnect between scientific knowledge and other kinds of knowledge managed to infect the otherwise healthy academic credentials of the Catholic Church stretching all the way back to the time of St. Augustine and beyond. Now John Farrell has posted a fascinating essay on the question, Is the Church Indifferent to Science? at his blog Farrellmedia.com, in which he suggests that this new trend of Illogical Positivism threatens to undermine the Church's capacity adequately to integrate contemporary science into its broader message to the world. As John writes in his peroration, "there is nothing to fear in the workings of the natural order", and I would add only that there is everything to fear in a movement that seeks to divorce the passionate study of the natural order from the passionate love of God and his creation.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

More Plain Sense

Dr. Michael Liccione has posted further thoughts on the dispute over the "plain meaning of scripture" at Sacrementum Vitae. So far I've only had time to read through it quickly, but I expect that I will have more to say about it later because it raises the very interesting question of the relationship between the sense of scripture and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a relation that all sides, apparently, agree to be central to the question. The role of private judgment in this is denied by some, asserted by others, and regarded as trivial by yet others. So perhaps the jury is still deliberating on this one.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

DarwinCatholic on the New Lectionary

DarwinCatholic has posted a long response to an article in Latin Mass by Peter Kwasniewski. Although I am rather fond of the cycle of readings in the old Roman Breviary, I agree with Darwin that the new Mass Lectionary has some marked advantages over the old one. Some self-styled traditionalists disagree, on the grounds that (a) the new Lectionary does not properly integrate the readings into the liturgical setting in the way that the old Lectionary did by means of proper chants and (b) by revising the calendar and festal hierarchy in the way that they did, the fit is even worse.

The old Roman Breviary did a remarkable job of combining the temporal with the sacral cycles, though the rubrics ran to many incomprehensible pages and often required a tag-team of canon lawyers to sift through. The new structure is so simple even cave men such as I can follow it and have no difficulty determining which Psalms are to be said with which parts of the Office. But what if the question is: has the resulting simplicity brought about something that we would want to label a "successful reform" of the liturgy? Darwin does an admirable job of answering the argument of Kwasniewski, particularly with regard to the relationship between the temporal and sacral cycles.

More Evil Problems

A former student of mine has articulated an interesting and important set of worries about my posts on the so-called "problem of evil", and it occurs to me that the combox is not the best place to do justice to them, so I'm going to try to respond to him in a full blown entry using the stichomachea approach that I ordinarily hate when reading other blogs. I will reproduce the entire text of the comment that is relevant to the problem, quoting it in blue rather than indenting it. I will address myself directly to my student in the second person, rather than attempting some kind of value-neutral perspective couched in the third person.

I have always thought that you brush off the so-called problem of evil a little too easily. In particular, your responses seem to have little force for someone who raises the problem as an objection to believing in God in the first place, rather than for someone facing it as a difficulty for their overall understanding of God.

I will begin by noting that my own analysis of the so-called "problem of evil" [PE] is never intended to persuade or to serve as a form of apologetics, so I am not concerned about objections of this sort. Indeed, I believe I have said in several of my posts that the capacity to assent to the faith is not, strictly speaking, up to us, but is rather made possible by a supernatural act of divine grace. So in one sense, you are right that what I have to say is going to be of little use to someone who does not yet believe in God; it is directed principally to the person who already believes in God as an aid in making sense of what he already believes. Theological speculation, in my view, is principally explanatory in nature, and not rhetorical. It makes use of metaphor, allusion, analogy, and other devices to reverse engineer what the believer already believes is the case but would like to understand better.

This may not be true of all analyses of PE. Obviously, in a philosophical context what one is looking for is some sort of argument for or against the hypotheses that are said to follow from the initial set of beliefs (i.e., "God is omnipotent", "God is omniscient", "God is omnibenevolent", and "Evil exists"). In particular, someone who wants to have a look at what a philosopher might have to say about PE could do worse than to look at Evil Beyond Belief by my colleague, Prof. James Petrik (M. E. Sharpe, 2000), or indeed the various posts on the topic by Dr. Michael Liccione at Sacramentum Vitae. Particularly important contributions on his part can be found here and here.

So the point that you raise here, that my discussion has little force for the non-believer, is an interesting one, but I would have to say that if what is wanted is a different sort of response, namely, a polemical one, then what is needed is some reason to think that the problem of evil actually needs such a response. The way the problem is often stated, it does not strike me as a problem at all, so it's not clear why I should make a different sort of response. It won't do to say something along the lines of "Well, a lot of really smart philosophers think it is a problem", because that just opens you up to the obverse of the objection you made against me: "Just as my 'solution' is convincing only to somebody who already believes, so too your 'problem of evil' is only a problem for people who already don't believe in God". In the case of someone like Ehrman, who once believed in God and who now claims not to believe in God because of PE, things may be a little different, but we shall see.

I'm not really convinced by your arguments, in part because I'm not convinced by your claims about what is and what isn't good. You'll have to go a really long way down the neo-Platonic path of hating the flesh before you can honestly say that it is a matter of indifference that a person suffers from ailments that are genuinely debilitating, that rob the person of the chance to attain anything more than a semblance of the good.

I didn't say that it was a matter of indifference. I admitted that, of course, nobody likes to suffer pain or sorrow. Indeed, I know from my own sad experience that it can really screw up one's day to break a bone or lose a loved one or live in times when we witness the mass destruction of human life, whether as a result of natural disaster or of human intervention. So it's not that it's a matter of indifference. It's that I'm unwilling to equate moral goodness with a lack of suffering and moral badness with the presence of suffering. In short, I'm not a hedonist, and I don't see that the burden of proof lies with me to antecedently accept hedonism as a prior condition for the solution of PE. In short, my view is that shit happens, but the fact that shit happens is not a sufficient condition for proving that God does not exist or that he is himself indifferent to human suffering.

Pointing to the facts of biology doesn't do any good, because God is presumably responsible for those, whether he caused them or merely allowed them.

In which case I fail to see how it "doesn't do any good". Doesn't it beg the question to argue this way: "Look, God is responsible for the way we are structured, the way we are structured causes suffering, suffering is evil, therefore God is either evil or he can't design his way out of a paper bag." Why can't I just as easily argue this way: "God is responsible for the way we are structured, the way we are structured causes physical and emotional suffering, therefore physical and emotional suffering is not as 'evil' as people imagine it to be." I'm not really sure why the burden of proof is on me to accept a non-Platonic attitude towards physical suffering and then attempt to explain it in terms that I don't think genuinely apply to it in the first place.

In fact, it seems that the Christian must believe that God can create a world in which the facts of biology do not make for the kind of suffering that we see in our world--if you look forward to the resurrection of the dead, then what you look forward to is an embodied form of eternal life. But if an embodied form of eternal life is possible, then it is not beyond God's power to create a world in which biological necessity does not lead to suffering.

Possibly, but whatever the Christian believes about what God could have done, there is no reason why the Christian "must" believe that God ought to design the world one way rather than another, if the normative claim behind that "ought" boils down to nothing more than a hopelessly subjective "God ought to create a world in which I can think of nothing to object to". In fact, it seems virtually narcissistic to argue this way. However, as I shall suggest below, this objection actually makes an interesting sort of mistake: it confuses the temporal with the atemporal, and assumes that the temporal order of things that we are consciously aware of right now has the same extension as the atemporal, of which we have no knowledge right now. I will suggest below that God has, in fact, already created a world in which biological necessity does not lead to suffering, and that we are, in fact, already living in that world.

Similarly, Christians who try to fend off the problem of evil by claiming that a world in which God prevented all evil (or at least natural evils) would ultimately have less good in it should ask themselves what they think life in the new creation is supposed to be like.

The difficulty with this is that it has God preventing things, which begs the question against the Christian, who asserts (for good, theological reasons) that free will is an essential element in the goodness of the created order. A more promising line of argument, which is connected to your question about the new creation, asks why God can't create a universe in which human beings have genuine free will and yet choose only good things. It is worth noting that if the old creation had the same properties as the new creation, then there would be no difference between the old and the new creations, so this particular objection appears to beg the question against the Christian worldview. But a more interesting difficulty, I think, is that God did create a universe in which genuinely free agents choose only good things, but we (as in, folks like you and I) are not capable of experiencing it yet: it is the eschaton. We are temporal creatures trying to make sense of an atemporal order of being in which we participate, albeit very indirectly, so it seems strange to say that "there will be a universe" in which there is free will exercised only for the good, and that "future" universe is in fact the same as "this" universe in which free creatures obviously choose to do evil.

The only remotely convincing responses to the 'problem' that I've read are ones that seriously revise the conception of God that most theists and atheists alike assume -- immaterial being who controls everything and can do whatever he wants and supposedly loves us but nonetheless allows, if he does not in fact cause, babies to be born with diseases that lead them to devour their own flesh. The problem with these defenses, in turn, is that their vision of God ends up looking rather different from the sort of God that the New Testament talks about. So then one wonders whether the God that can escape the objections can possibly be the God of Christianity.

Here I just don't know what you're talking about. The conception of God that you are assigning to theists looks nothing like the conception of God that I have, and I count myself as a theist. I'm happy to admit that there are theists and atheists alike who have simplistic, naive, and cartoonish ideas of what God is like (the Harrises, Dennetts, and Dawkinses of the world come to mind), but I take it that PE is supposed to be a problem not for the cartoonish God but for the well-thought-out one. Nor do I have any idea what your alternative conception of God would be like or what reason one would have to believe in it. Quite frankly, if I were not a Catholic, I would be an atheist, because in my opinion religion generally is a load of crap, and I believe that I accept the truths of Catholicism only because I am moved to do so by an act of divine grace that aids me in assenting to those truths. If the God that I believe in does not actually exist, then what I am interpreting as divine aid is just some psychological affect, and I am deluded--but not so deluded as to think that any other godlike being could possibly exist.

Don't get me wrong -- your criticisms of Ehrman et al. are right on target, if only because they take so much for granted without even stopping to consider them. I certainly don't believe that any arguments from evil establish that God does not or could not exist. Yet your own philosophical colleagues and co-religionists -- hell, your own scriptures --- do not agree with you that the problem of evil is nothing more than a stupid mistake made by idiots with no proper appreciation for what is really good or what God is really like.

There are two different claims here. One is that "philosophical colleagues and co-religionists" don't agree with me, the other is that my "own scriptures" do not agree with me.

It is not fully true that my "philosophical colleagues and co-religionists" do not agree with me. Some of them do not agree with me, others do agree with me. It is, perhaps, the case that more of those who have published their views do not agree with me, but I think that if you were to read more of those published views you would find that the extent of my disagreement with them is actually quite limited, and if you were to read around among those who agree with me you would find that PE, as it is commonly stated, is really a mere philosophical puzzle, not a deep theological problem for real theists. If it were really as bad as you make out, smart people would abandon Christianity for good--or do you assert that only "idiots with no proper appreciation for what is really good or what God is really like" are still Christians these days?

As for the scriptures not agreeing with me, well that is just question-begging. I'm putting forward a view about evil and its place in God's created order, and of course I believe my view to be consonant with what the Scriptures say, or I would not put it forward. My view depends a very great deal on other things I have written about the Scriptures and my view about God's justice, and it is certainly not intended as a merely ad hoc response to a problem that I never really thought about before. So you can't just point to the very same Scriptures that I'm using as a basis for my view and say, triumphantly, "Look, that text proves you wrong." Instead, it would be more helpful to have specific texts cited, along with reasons given for thinking that they contradict me, that I could usefully respond to. I will admit, of course, that my view does reflect the fact that I am not yet convinced that there actually is a problem of evil, though of course I admit that evil exists. It would be helpful for me, too, if somebody could explain in greater detail why it has to be the case that the existence of evil as we experience it is a problem for the Christian. It simply isn't very convincing to just be told that there is an insuperable logical puzzle in which omnibenevolence and omniscience do not get along all that well with omnipotence and evil. As Wittgenstein once remarked, it is pointless to use the language of logic when talking about issues that are only communicable in the language of the heart.

On my view, there are two sorts of phenomena that are named "evil" for the purposes of PE (and I think it is worth noting that there are other contexts in which "evil", as a concept, has applications, contexts in which nothing about the existence or nature of God is entailed by its existence): (a) pain and suffering, whether physical, psychological, emotional, or what have you; and (b) the ill-formed intentions of human agents that bring about phenomena in the category of (a). There is a third type, which seems to me largely irrelevant to PE, but may be worth mentioning for the sake of completeness: (c) deliberate turning away from God's will that does not result in phenomena in the category of (a). In this category would fall such acts as unjust hatred of one's neighbor, even though one never has any interactions with one's neighbor and never does anything to harm one's neighbor in any way.

Category (a), as I have already pointed out, can only be counted as "evil" for the context of PE if one antecedently adopts a form of hedonism that begs the question against the Neoplatonist. In addition, to count such phenomena as "evil" completely ignores the success of evolutionary biology in explaining the origin and function of material processes such as physical and emotional pain. In short, to say that such phenomena are "evil" in their own right (and again, in the sense required for PE) is to say that nature itself is "evil" and reflects a pre-modern worldview that, quite frankly, isn't worth taking seriously. The argument that claims that God "could have" created a natural order in which we biological entities have all of the same properties that we have now only without pain and suffering is desperately ad hoc and continues the naturalistic fallacy of assigning moral predicates to natural phenomena.

Category (b) is a little more worrisome, but only a little more. Once it is realized that the phenomena in category (a) are hardly "evil" in the sense required by PE, it is not difficult to show that phenomena in category (b) are fully explained by the doctrine of free will.

Now, all of this is not to say, as you put it in your initial worry, that the Christian is "indifferent" to human suffering of a physical kind. In fact the Christian is called to alleviate suffering wherever he finds it, and this is not a mere bowing to convention. Surely this needs some explanation. My view is, of course, a distinctively Catholic one in the sense that I regard all of human experience as in some sense sacramental. That is just a fancy way of saying that everything in our experience is shot through with a deeper meaning that is not the same as the surface, or empirical, meaning (and this is why I am not a global empiricist). Pleasure, for example, is every bit as puzzling as pain, and yet nobody seems to regard it as a problem for religion. Why do we experience pleasure? Why does sex feel so good? Why is food so satisfying? Why do we have conscious awareness at all? One can imagine beings such as ourselves in every respect only without any sensation at all, no need to experience the pleasures of sex or eating or indeed being consciously aware. Materially, there is a perfectly adequate explanation for why we are the way we are in reality rather than this fantastic aphenomenal sort of creature, but the explanation is a contingent one: we just happened to develop this way because, for whatever contingent set of reasons, our set of properties had the effect of granting us differential reproductive success in our environment, but we could easily have been quite different.

Given that we are the way we are from a material point of view, the theologian seeks to understand why we are the way we are from a theological point of view. Pleasure, then becomes not merely a mechanism by which we are tempted to continue doing things that are objectively good for us, though of course they are also that at a material level. At another level, though, all pleasurable experiences also serve to direct our attention to God in a certain way. Whether they prompt us to feel gratitude, or engage in praise, or just feel joy and communion with something beyond ourselves, the point is that, if materialism is false, none of these attitudes towards pleasure need be reduced to the merely physical. The physical is merely a material correlate for something else, namely, a kind of closeness with God. The pleasurable stands as a sacramental sign of the possibility of the communion that is our end.

Similarly, pain and suffering are sacramental signs of our separation from God, but because Jesus Christ's sacrifice had the genuine ontological effect of altering the nature of that separation, even pain and suffering are not what they once were. Again, there is a perfectly reasonable materialist explanation for why we feel pain: it is a very useful mechanism, biologically. The more complicated problem is why we don't like pain, the other side of the "why do we like pleasure" coin. One can imagine somebody feeling pain without minding it. Indeed, even in our own case I'm sure you and I have had minor cuts and scrapes that we didn't particularly mind, but of course the more severe the injury the more we mind it, but some studies have suggested that different individuals experience these things in different ways (indeed, some studies have suggested that other species, such as Neanderthal, have had very high pain thresholds, beyond what we could bear), so it is no simple matter to simply make the equation pain=evil, and it is even more complicated in a world that contains masochists. In general, though, my view is that we don't like pain because any painful experience is a sacramental sign of our general alienation from God. In this sense, pain serves another useful purpose, though it's not a material purpose. It serves the other purpose of drawing us closer to God: just as pleasurable sensations can remind us to be grateful to God painful ones prompt us to turn to him in our suffering. The scriptures that you say contradict me actually are full of calls to us to turn to God and appeal to him in our times of trouble, he wants to be our solace and our shield, he wants to comfort us and take care of us. But because of human freedom, he cannot do those things if we turn away from him. We feel pain and sorrow when we turn away from God in just the same way that a heliotropic flower begins to wilt when you turn it away from the sun: God is our end, our source of life and being. It is difficult for materialists to grasp how an inner attitude can have a physical manifestation, but that is the beauty of sacramental religion.

It is tempting for materialists to claim that some pain and suffering is "undeserved". This is a utilitarian attitude that fails to grasp the genuine nature of pain and suffering in the order of things. It is true that, when an infant dies of starvation in Ethiopia, there is a utilitarian sense in which he did not "deserve" to die, nor did his parents "deserve" to feel the sorrow of his loss. On the other hand, it is tempting for some religious folks to answer this worry by saying that Original Sin means that nobody "deserves" anything or, in certain extreme forms of Calvinism, that we all "deserve" death and so that infant was actually getting what he did deserve. I am not attracted to these sorts of response, because they carry the real danger of accepting the utilitarian attitude towards pain and suffering, which I believe to be fundamentally wrongheaded. Instead, I would prefer to say that Original Sin means that we have a propensity to turn away from God and a corresponding propensity to fail to flourish. If we understand "deserve" in an Aristotelian sense, it is then fair to say that we "deserve" pain and suffering in the same way in which the heliotrope "deserves" to wilt when it is turned away from the sun: "deserve" just means "get what comes as a matter of the natural course of things given what you have done". You turned away from God, and you ceased to flourish. The infant, of course, did not deliberately turn away from God, but when he suffers he shares in the human condition in a unique way, whether he understands what he is undergoing or not. It goes without saying that he doesn't understand his pleasurable states, either, even though he doesn't "deserve" them in a utilitarian sense. He only knows that he likes them, and that he dislikes pains.

It's important not to conflate the two issues at work here: the biological and the theological. Biologically, it isn't in the least bit puzzling that an infant should feel pain, should be capable of starving and dying. The paternalists who expect God to jump into the mix and put a stop to such things, while permitting such things as pleasures and joys, have a very confused idea of what it means to live in a world that has meaning. Theologically, then, it is no more puzzling, once we comprehend that being is more complex than the merely physical.

So I stand by my analysis of PE: I continue to maintain that it is not a problem in the least for the Christian theist, and that the case against me has yet to be made.

Plain Really Is Plain, Canon Really Is Canon

In a series of comments on this post at Siris, Brandon Watson and Fr. Al Kimel have been discussing the Protestant conception of the expression "plain meaning of scripture". Brandon's point all along has been that Catholics (i.e., me, Jonathan Prejean, and Dr. Michael Liccione), have failed to understand the specifically Protestant conception of that term, and that our failure to make the proper connection has adversely affected our collective argument. Specifically, Brandon maintains that it is a mistake to conflate the issue of private judgment with the issue of the specifically Protestant conception of the plain meaning of scripture. Although I remain unconvinced that this is so, his argument is interesting and well-articulated, and deserves to be widely read. In the end, however, he seems to me to reduce "plain meaning of scripture" to something so trivial as to be basically useless to the Protestant position. Part of his argument, however, is that this is precisely why Catholics have missed a golden opportunity to capitalize on their own conception of the meaning, interpretation, and authority of scripture. Those interested in this aspect of the discussion really ought to have a look at the entire exchange between Brandon and Fr. Al.

Of greater interest to me at this point, however, is a remark that Brandon makes in one of his comments about the formation of the Canon:
I think it is presumptuous for anyone to say definitively why any book in the Bible was accepted into the canon, and in violation of Catholic doctrine. De Fide Catholica explicitly tells us that the Church did not pick and choose the canon; it received it and recognized it as from God. The only one who knows the full reasons why a book is in the canon is God Himself, who is the one who formed it as a gift for the Church. We do know from Scripture that all of Scripture somehow tells us of Christ, and we can get to know, in a very general and vague way, something of the divine purpose in seeing how the Holy Spirit has shaped the interaction of the Church with the book. But that's pretty much it.
This is an interesting and important point. I have argued, in several posts, that the New Testament Canon in particular must be regarded as authoritative only because the Church herself has so regarded them, that is, the authority of the Church to determine and interpret the Canon of scripture is prior (both temporally and ontologically) to the authority of the New Testament scriptures themselves. This is a simple fact of the chronology involved, in my view, but of course Brandon is right that it does not follow from my position that we can say definitively why any particular text in the Canon was accepted. I say "definitively" because, of course, the obvious reason--namely, that the text is consistent with orthodox Christian belief--may not be satisfying to everybody. Brandon's point is directed at the following passage of De Fide Catholica:
These books the church holds to be sacred and canonical not because she subsequently approved them by her authority after they had been composed by unaided human skill, nor simply because they contain revelation without error, but because, being written under the inspiration of the holy Spirit, they have God as their author, and were as such committed to the church.
The decree gives three reasons why any particular text is accepted into the Canon, and privileges one of them. The three reasons cited are:
[1] The Church subsequently approved the text.

[2] The text contains revelation without error.

[3] The text was written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
The decree does not deny that [1] and [2] are true in a historical sense, but since the Council is not infallible in empirical matters of history it wisely chose to declare only [3] as the unquestionable reason why the texts were received into the Canon. To say that this is the theological reason is not, of course, to deny the historical reasons. Indeed, theological reasons are often mere reverse-engineered explanations of what, in fact, happened historically. It is worth noting, however, that to say that the only unmistakable reason why a particular text is received into the Canon is because it has God as its author, is not to deny that the Church gets to, as Brandon put it, "pick and choose" the texts of the Canon. In one sense, obviously, the Church does not pick and choose the texts, but in another sense, it is equally obvious that she does.

The sense in which the Church does not "pick and choose" the texts of the Canon is this. God himself is speaking to his Church through the Canon of scriptures, and the Church recognizes that fact in accepting a particular work into the Canon. The Church does not determine what is infallibly true, the Church discerns it and accepts it. It is important to note, however, that the authentic scriptures, which were committed to writing by mortal men, are not the only source of divine inspiration in this mix. The Church herself enjoys a special charism whereby she is the authoritative instrument through which this discernment and acceptance takes place. The Church accepted the Gospel of Matthew into the Canon, but not the Gospel of Thomas. Any particular individual who decides for himself that the Gospel of Thomas was indeed a divinely inspired and authentic Gospel, is simply mistaken, whatever claim he might make for the validity of his private judgment in that matter.

So this, then, is the sense in which the Church does "pick and choose" the texts of the Canon: the historical process whereby a particular text is read again and again in liturgical contexts and slowly recognized as bearing the stamp of God's own truth. It is essential to recognize that this historical process would be impossible outside of the institutional structure that is the Church, because independently of her charism, anyone at any time could declare literally any text to be divinely inspired. In fact this is precisely what has happened historically, and it is the reason why there are such books as the Book of Mormon and, indeed, the Holy Qur'an.

Monday, November 05, 2007

News from the Scorecard Department

Personally, I don't think these sorts of things matter in the least, but it can sometimes be fun nonetheless to take note of who has left and who has joined The Fold. The New York Times had a story in yesterday's magazine about Antony Flew and his recent flirtation with deism. As most folks familiar with the name Antony Flew already know, there is nothing in particular for Christian theists to get excited about, since Flew's newfound interest in God came at the age of 82 and is not appreciably different from Aristotle's interest in an Unmoved Mover that is Thought thinking Itself. But when it comes to "keeping score", especially among the more fundamentalist apologetical types, this kind of thing comes around only once in a generation or so and is not something that one avoids exploiting, regardless of what it might cost one's credibility in the long haul. It's rather difficult to get worked up over the conversion of any one individual, even more difficult to get worked up over the conversion of one individual who converts merely to deism rather than to Christianity, and it's almost impossible to get worked up at all when the back story is like this:
But is Flew’s conversion what it seems to be? Depending on whom you ask, Antony Flew is either a true convert whose lifelong intellectual searchings finally brought him to God or a senescent scholar possibly being exploited by his associates. The version you prefer will depend on how you interpret a story that began 20 years ago, when some evangelical Christians found an atheist who, they thought, might be persuaded to join their side. In the intellectual tug of war that ensued, Flew himself — a continent away, his memory failing, without an Internet connection — had no idea how fiercely he was being fought over or how many of his acquaintances were calling or writing him just to shore up their cases. For a time, Flew hardly spoke to the media, leaving evangelicals and atheists to trade interpretations of his rare, oracular pronouncements. Was he now a believer in intelligent design? In Christianity? In some vague, intelligent “life force”? With the publication of his new book, Flew is once again talking, and this summer I traveled to England to speak with him. But as I discovered, a conversation with him confuses more than it clarifies. With his powers in decline, Antony Flew, a man who devoted his life to rational argument, has become a mere symbol, a trophy in a battle fought by people whose agendas he does not fully understand.
But it gets worse, if only a little:
When at last Flew speaks, his diction is halting, in stark contrast to Schroeder and Haldane, both younger men, forceful and assured. Under their prodding, Flew concedes that the Big Bang could be described in Genesis; that the complexity of DNA strongly points to an “intelligence”; and that the existence of evil is not an insurmountable problem for the existence of God. In short, Flew retracts decades’ worth of conclusions on which he built his career. At one point, Haldane is noticeably smiling, embarrassed (or pleased) by Flew’s acquiesence. After one brief lecture from Schroeder, arguing that the origin of life can be seen as a form of revelation, Flew says, “I don’t see any way to meet that argument at the moment.”
It kind of gives one that sickish, quasi-sinking feeling in the pit of one's stomach, especially as one reads on and learns of the ways in which Flew has been used by both sides in this rather tawdry contest. But, as I said, it doesn't really matter who converts and who doesn't, all that really matters is the question whether the Christian religion is true or not. If it is not true, it doesn't matter in the least who believes that it is and who believes that it isn't, it's all just a huge language game, along with everything else that humans engage in and practicing it is no more harmful than collecting postage stamps or listening to Mozart and it might actually bring about some good if practiced correctly. If it is true, then the folks who don't believe in it are loved by a God who teaches the rest of us to take care of them, and we do our best to show them the light but we don't push them down the stairs while their eyes are closed: their fate is in God's hands.

If you've ever played that carnival game called Whack a Mole, where little toy moles pop up out of a box through irregularly spaced holes and you try to smack them all back down with a large hammer, you already know what's coming. As soon as one mole crawls into the theistic clubhouse, another one is already sneaking out the back way. Just as Antony Flew came in from the cold (sort of), out goes Bart Ehrman. Actually, he wiggled out some time ago, confused by his own studies of the textual criticism of the New Testament (I blogged about his travails in that department almost a year ago here), but now Stanley Fish blogs on 4 November about his new book God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. Now, not to toot my own horn or anything, but I've also blogged a few times on the so-called "Problem of evil", starting here, and I have to confess that when folks as otherwise intelligent as Bart Ehrman start worrying about the problem of evil it seems to me that the only fitting response is to roll one's eyes and say something like "whatever, dude" and walk briskly away. Take a look at some of this (as reported by Fish):
Ehrman knows and surveys the standard answers to these questions – God is angry at a sinful, disobedient people; suffering is redemptive, as Christ demonstrated on the cross; evil and suffering exist so that God can make good out of them; suffering induces humility and is an antidote to pride; suffering is a test of faith – but he finds them unpersuasive and as horrible in their way as the events they fail to explain: “If God tortures, maims and murders people just to see how they will react – to see if they will not blame him, when in fact he is to blame – then this does not seem to me to be a God worthy of worship.”
It's interesting, I think, that the real Christian explanation of suffering is not among the possible explanations on offer here, and I attribute that fact to Ehrman's background:
Born-again as a teenager, devoted to the scriptures (he memorized entire books of the New Testament), strenuously devout....
In short, he was seeing a rather bizarre version of Christianity to begin with, the evangelical Protestant kind that exists in a vacuum, disconnected from the ecclesial reality of nearly 2000 years and the very sort of belief that is likely to evaporate as one begins to learn the truth about the nature of the texts one is memorizing without knowing much about the relation of those texts to the Tradition and the Magisterium or having much of a background in the theology behind a proper theodicy.

Not long ago I complained about a view of prayer that is overly utilitarian in nature; I might add a similar complaint about the sort of theology of the miraculous endorsed by folks such as Ehrman:
Many books of theology and philosophy have been written in response to Epicurus’s conundrums, but Ehrman’s isn’t one of them. What impels him is not the fascination of intellectual puzzles, but the anguish produced by what he sees when he opens his eyes. “If he could do miracles for his people throughout the Bible, where is he today when your son is killed in a car accident, or your husband gets multiple sclerosis? . . . I just don’t see anything redemptive when Ethiopian babies die of malnutrition.”
In other words, Ehrman thinks that the miracle stories in the Gospel are nothing more than stories about God making problems go away. Rather than seeing Jesus's acts for what they were--sacramental manifestations of the power to forgive sins--a theology that lacks a coherent sacramentality simply sees "the miraculous" as nothing more than that: plain old ordinary miracle stories. Well, he could have saved himself a great deal of time just by reading old Hume, who has already shown that it is irrational to believe in those kinds of miracle stories anyway. People are starving in Ethiopia not because God is neglecting to save them, but because biological entities require nutrition to survive. This is a fact of biology, not a theological puzzle, and it is a peculiarly secular problem to fall for such a bizarre confusion of categories. Ehrman was already gone when he began having difficulties with his faith if he found himself puzzled by something that only puzzles people who cannot comprehend the faith to begin with. (It would not come as a huge surprise to me to learn that Ehrman is also a political liberal, because the people who expect a loving God to step in and prevent any form of human suffering are often the same people who expect the government to step in and take care of everyone's problems (and to expect the rest of us to pay for it through coercive and confiscatory taxation). But now I'm just venting.)

It doesn't help that many modern day Christians have abandoned their Neoplatonic roots and think that physical suffering is a Bad Thing that trumps just about everything else, including the fact that our souls are supposedly immortal. If you really have an immortal soul, and if you really believe that everyone else has one too, then you will not worry as much about physical suffering as a person who thinks that the present material existence is the only one there is. But of course, we are called by the Gospel to care for others and to alleviate suffering where we find it, but the call here is not so much to prevent suffering as to cherish life. Although these two things are functionally very similar (indeed, in many cases they are the same), they are not by any means identical, and the failure to see this is often behind the inability to see that the "problem of evil" is not really a problem at all.

As long as we are the byproducts of evolutionary forces--and of course we are--we will have the capacity to feel pain. It is a mistake of a rather elementary kind to try to equate a natural property of a material entity with a moral category like "evil". Sure, we don't like pain and suffering, but it is a mechanism, nothing more. Only a moral relativist of the most distasteful variety would associate moral goodness and badness with what we like and don't like. We feel pain in the way that certain kinds of plants wilt when they don't get enough water--it is just an artifact of the way we are put together, it is not something that an omnibenevolent God "ought" to have prevented if he had cared enough about us to have put us together in a different way. Again, you'd have to be some sort of bizarre fundamentalist committed to intelligent design and young-earth creationism to fall for the kind of crap that equates mere physical suffering with evil in the world.

People sometimes act as though God's justice is at stake in all this. Young babies dying of starvation in Ethiopia are supposed to show us that God is himself somehow evil (or, more benignly, simply non-existent), just as we would accuse a human parent of "depraved indifference" if he calmly watched as his young child wandered out into a busy highway and did nothing to prevent the inevitable. It really does take a village, doesn't it? Why anyone would be attracted to a theology in which God is just one more citizen in the universe, who can be expected to throw himself in front of oncoming traffic or pull careless swimmers out of riptides, is beyond me, but there you have it: if God is just one of us, then we can criticize the rationality of his decisions regarding particular human fates out there in the world. If my theology was as banal as that I would lose my faith, too, because that really is a stupid way to look at things.

But, again, it doesn't actually matter what Bart Ehrman believes, any more than it matters what Antony Flew believes, or what Daniel Dennet or Richard Swinburne or Richard Dawkins or Stephen Barr or anyone else believes--the truth or the falsity of the propositions of our religion stand or fall independently of anything so subjective as the mental states of any one individual. It is a peculiarly human conceit to think that, once we have satisfied ourselves that this or that particular viewpoint is "irrational", then that's it, case closed. Science, according to some, has "proven" that God either does not or at least cannot exist; logic, according to others, can "prove" that God's existence is necessary; observation (I kid you not), according to yet others, "proves" that the universe manifests intelligent design. These are all claims that get seriously made by intelligent persons (well, maybe not that last one), but they are all just language games. Ultimately the content of our religion is apprehended and made into something that we can assent to by a supernatural act of divine grace, and we had better not pretend otherwise or we will be in trouble. Obviously, folks who do not hear that call will laugh at the suggestion, but our job is not to beat them into submission with logical "proofs" and other forms of argument. As I suggested above, we don't push blind men down the stairs. Instead, we live our lives in a certain way, because we, too, are sacramental signs. We are the living manifestations of God's will on earth, provided that we are living our lives in the right way. That is why it is not God's job, but ours, to see to it that babies in Ethiopia do not starve. Only a theology lacking the proper sacramentality will miss this point. God is not one of us, we are rather striving to be one with him, and so the ways in which things unfold here on earth are indeed connected to God's goodness and God's justice, but in a very different way than folks like Bart Ehrman imagine.

Update: Dr. Michael Liccione has also commented on these issues at Sacramentum Vitae. His take is slightly different from mine, but he comes to a very similar conclusion, namely, that the problem of evil is not insoluble. On his view, the Christian can answer the problem of evil by adopting a certain conceptual stance regarding explanation and scientism. The entire essay is well worth reading.