Tending our Gardens
As some of you may know, I’m hoping to do a thesis this year which focuses on the problem of evil in some form or another. With an eye towards that, I’m currently researching a history paper on the Lisbon earthquake and the decline of philosophical optimism in the eighteenth century.
One of the most scathing indictments of Enlightenment optimism was Voltaire’s Candide (1759) which was a direct attack on a popular theodicy of the time, articulated by Leibniz, which held that the amount and variety of evil in the world was necessary because God, being perfect and wise, would not create anything less than the best of all possible worlds. This sentiment was famously expressed in Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man (1732):
All Nature is but Art unknown to thee; All chance direction, which thou canst not see; All discord, harmony not understood; All partial evil, universal good: And spite of Pride, in erring Reason’s spite, One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
The horror and carnage of the 1755 earthquake led Voltaire to conclude that this was absurd—the evil witnessed there was not and could not be a necessary element of God’s finely-tuned divine system. The bare existence of something did not make it right. To say so represented a callous disregard for human suffering and was unworthy of God.
Candide is at times humorous, at times gruesome and grim, and at times hopeless. The main character, Candide, travels around the world, meeting circumstance after circumstance of random and senseless evil. His life is one of unrelenting despair, misery, and hopelessness, but he resolves to continue to believe his travel companion, the philosopher Pangloss, that all is for the best, in this the “best of all possible worlds.”
The story is meant to highlight the absurdity of such a claim in the light of all the evil we see in the world. For Voltaire, the only solution—the only proper human response to an existence characterized by such absurd —is to “work without theorizing” for it is “the only way to make life endurable.” Candide famously ends with the protagonist’s statement, after listening to an eloquent description of how all the evil that had led to the present was justified and demonstrated God’s wonderful providence, that we must simply “cultivate our gardens.”
I couldn’t help but think of Candide as I read this article over the weekend. A young woman from New York made the choice to take a test to see if she was carrying the gene for Huntington’s disease knowing full well that if the test came back positive she would live the rest of her life in the full knowledge that she was certain to be afflicted by this horrible disease at some point around mid-life. The article goes on to discuss what it’s like for this young woman to live with this knowledge. It’s a very sad story—it is a decision I could not imagine making, and a life I could not imagine living. She has, understandably, thrown herself into fund raising and various other tasks. She is doing her best to plan for a future whose horizon is suddenly much nearer than she expected.
This story does not have the kind of grim macabre character of Candide, yet I was struck by the similarities of the endings of the two stories. The article ends with a simple description of this courageous young woman going about an ordinary, everyday task. She knows that she will be faced with what I would call genuine evil—something that is but is not right. She knows that she will be faced with a disease that causes its victims to jerk and twitch uncontrollably, rendering them progressively unable to walk, talk, think and swallow. She knows this, and she knows that she cannot avoid it.
And she is tending her garden.
Part of me resists the kind of hopelessness I see in stories like this and, even more so, in Candide. Is this all we can do? Tend our gardens in a world where so much unnecessary and unredeemed suffering is faced by so many people? Of course immediately all sorts of philosophical and theological arguments and rationales pop into my head, some partially convincing, many not. I suppose the one theme that sustains my thinking in matters such as these is that of redemption. I agree with Voltaire—the suffering we see in the world is too random, too plentiful, too wasteful and tragic for it to all be a part of a carefully designed “divine system.” But this should not really be news to the Christian.
The biblical narrative certainly doesn’t present evil as necessary—it is an unwelcome intruder, an enemy whose defeat is promised. In a sense, the Christian is actually prohibited from considering this to be “the best of all possible worlds” for we are summoned to work towards and live according to what we believe will be a redeemed and renewed world. In the person and life of Christ I see, primarily, a figure of redemption.
Ultimately, of course, he redeemed his people through his death and resurrection. But in his life he was constantly bringing goodness out of evil, and he called his followers to do the same. I do not get the sense that Jesus sees every specific instance of evil as a necessary component of “the best of all possible worlds.” The price that was paid to redeem God’s creation allows us no illusions about the necessity of evil.
And so we tend our gardens. But we do not do so as an act of helpless resignation in the face of the absurdity of life. We do so in the hope that the glimpses of redemption that we see and participate in right now will ultimately be validated and consummated in the future God has promised.
is suffering evil?
I think suffering can be considered evil if you think that an all good God who is all powerful and all knowing is controlling universe. If you don’t believe in that sort of God or don’t believe in any God then you might just consider the suffering that results of from natural disaster as amoral. In other words, natural disasters are just the way reality is just as the gravity is part of reality.
If Christian theology doesn’t try and make the case evil is necessary in the best of all possible worlds or that it is necessary for free will… then what is the point of evil? If it is some kind of unwelcome intruder why can’t God do anything to prevent it? The Biblical narrative is a mixed bag for me. You’ve got God commanding a nation to commit genocide in the OT as well as the figure of Jesus in the NT. Then there is that whole doctrine of Hell where God is going to send people to eternal suffering.
Dale, I think that I would tentatively say ‘yes’ in response to your question. In the sense that even if we accept that suffering is used by God to correct people or to lead them to maturity, a situation in which suffering is the tool for the job is less than ideal – an ‘evil’ – from God’s perspective and ours (I think). This is not to say that suffering can’t have positive results – there are obviously many examples of tremendous good coming out of evil – but I think this speaks more to the redemptive capacity of God and the human beings who bear his image.
jc, if suffering can only be considered evil if one believes in a good and powerful God, how do we account for the persistent human tendency to see suffering – whether from natural or human causes – as somehow unjust, even among those who would profess no religious belief?
What makes you assume that those who do not profess a belief in God do see it as unjust? It may well be but so far I have not seen evidence of this or have any reason to believe that this proposition is true. I think one could look at natural suffering rationally and be justified in believing that there is nothing inherently evil about it. It may be a viewed as metaphysically given fact of reality. It may be that people wish that the death rate was not 100 percent for every human… but it is a fact of reality that the death rate is 100 percent. No wishful thinking can change it. Its not unjust or evil… it just is.
This is all beside the point of your post though. I am trying to see how the idea of living with hope in the face of life’s absurdity advances your theodicy. It doesn’t seem to make the idea of God any more coherent but your post seems to leave things unresolved and sort of in paradox. From the human point of view suffering doesn’t seem to make sense, God sending people to hell doesn’t make sense, and God commanding genocide doesn’t make sense. For me, when I tried to make all of those things cohere so that I could actually believe it with out going insane every time I thought about it seemed too difficult a task.
I notice that you are reading a book from Hans Boersma. I took a couple classes back in my time at Trinity from him. Nice guy.
When I worked in talk radio, I lost count of the number of people who declared no belief in God yet were outraged that evil existed. In fact, of the hundreds of people interviewed, I can’t think of any who simply considered evil a “metphysical fact” of reality and just left it at that.
One other thing to add in response to your comment: “If [evil] is some kind of unwelcome intruder why can’t God do anything to prevent it?” The Christian story says that God has done something to deal with evil: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
I didn’t necessarily say that people wouldn’t be outraged that evil existed. I said that it is possible to not classify natural disasters as evil or unjust.
Your answer still leaves me wondering why God let this unwelcome intruder in to cause so much harm? Why didn’t he just choose not to create the possibility of evil? Why is God sending people to hell when they are born with the defect of original sin? God could have prevented this whole tragic scenario from playing out in the first place and chose not to. He knows what kind of evidence every person requires to obtain a belief in Him but chooses only to provide that evidence to a few. The whole point of a theodicy is provide a coherent understanding of how evil and God can exist in the same universe. Some of the issues I have pointed out show the lack of coherence.
In your opinion, why would people be outraged that evil existed?
I can’t help but get the impression from what you’ve wrote in your post that the belief in a future theistic Utopia justifies all the evils God allowed to happen in the past. Are you suggesting that we “forgive and forget” God’s sin of omission?
How many people were hungry in the past and God gave them nothing to eat? How many people were thirsty in the past and God gave them nothing to drink? How many people did he leave naked when they needed clothes? Or were sick and he didn’t heal them?
I don’t think that the belief in a “future theistic Utopia justifies all the evil God allowed to happen in the past.” Beliefs can be right or wrong – a belief in and of itself justifies nothing.
The reality of the kingdom of God, I believe, can and must justify all the evil this world has seen or else it’s not worthy of the name. That’s what I’m staking my life on anyway. Of course this belief may turn out to be false, but it’s the horse I’m picking…
What about you? How do you see the problems you’ve identified being resolved?
Re. “classifying” events as evil or not: I gotcha. Thanks for clarifying. I agree with you.
In terms of why God let the “unwelcome intruder” in, I think we need to clarify what presuppositions we’re all operating with. Do we all agree that God creates us free? Do we all agree that we are created to “partner” with God in the ongoing care of creation? I would hold to those to propositions, in which case there is a significant measure of human responsibility for evil. In other words, God isn’t the only one to “blame.” Furthermore, do we all agree that God is sending people to hell? I’m not sure I do. Plus I don’t think that issue is directly related to the question of evil. Finally, do we all agree that a coherent understanding of evil is possible? I’m not entirely sure. I think there will be elements of “mystery” that will continue to vex us this side of eternity.
I hope my questions help to clarify a few areas so that we can have a coherent account to the extent that it’s possible. What do you think?
The Biblical story is quite clear that humans, particularly Israel and later the Church, were very much responsible for feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, etc. The way you state it, it sounds as you’re saying that only God is to “blame.” It seems to me, though, that humanity has plenty to do with creating evil without God’s help. In fact, it seems to me that God has done a lot to limit evil, particularly from and by humanity.
Just a little blurb and I will duck out so that the rest of you can duke out the weightier issues of the problem of evil.
I guess I wonder if suffering is evil and I would like to wander down the path of considering that suffering may not be evil – as ill advised as that may seem.
I think we suffer because of (a) the things we do and (b) the things that happen to us. The later falls into two catagories in my mind as well: the things that other people do to us and the things brought about by circumstances.
I can assert that suffering is unpleasant but logically I think I have to conclude that suffering is the product of my reaction to something else happening. Is that ‘something else’ evil? Well I suppose it could be in some cases – especially but not exclusively when other people perpetrate evil on others. (ie: rape, genocide)
I think another important factor is our perspective. We MIGHT all agree that people in Africa are suffering – yet invariably when people return from these places they speak of the enduring joy, generosity, peace, and resilience of people affected by war, poverty, etc. From our perspective this seems incongruent because our PERCEPTION is that they are suffering. But it is my suggestion that they don’t percieve their circumstances as suffering. Our own perspective on what we would consider to be suffering is far different. (I mean why would we maon for instance about only getting dial up internet service when all of our other classmates have high speed connections to assist in thier research?)
there’s bound to be a number of holes in my thinking so wail away…
I think you raise a good point. I wonder if those of us in North America are particularly vexed by the presence of evil b/c our culture enjoys technologies (many of them beneficial, like washing machines, for example) that provide us with comfort and insulate us from many harsh realities. Imagine having to scrub all of our clothing by hand. That’s a lot of work (a suffering I’m more than happy to avoid)!
To use another example, our culture prizes efficiency and convenience. For example, airplanes reduce a trip from Vancouver to New York from months by foot, weeks by horse, days by car, to a mere 5 hours. Computers allow us to communicate instantly, without the hassle of actually having to go through the tedious work of arranging a meeting and actually having to get to know some one on a personal basis.
The upshot is that we’ve reduced a lot of suffering, so I wonder if we are – dare I say it? – overly sensitive to suffering, and are quick to call any suffering evil.
I find it curious that those with the most vehement objections to Christian theodicy have, so far, declined the request to offer an alternative.
Ryan said to me, “What about you? How do you see the problems you’ve identified being resolved?”
And Gil said, “I find it curious that those with the most vehement objections to Christian theodicy have, so far, declined the request to offer an alternative.”
I’m not so arrogant as to presume I have a prophecy, or am willing to believe another’s prophecy on how the existence of evil will be resolved and justified.
J, I don’t mean to make it sound like humanity has no responsibility when we choose to commit an evil act. But I do like to emphasize God’s responsibility because we don’t have the omnipotence, omniscience AND the omnibenevolence to ensure evil would never be available to humanity.
I think you’re using deliberately pejorative language to evade responsibility here. Do you really think that I or anyone else involved in this post is “arrogantly” offering a “prophecy” about how the problem of evil is to be most profitably conceptualized? How is a polite request for give and take in an honest discussion arrogant? How is offering one’s own understanding of how the existence of evil is ultimately to be justified considered a “prophecy?” I explicitly acknowledged my own epistemological limitations both in the original post, and in subsequent comments (“of course this belief could turn out to be false” – hardly the language of prophecy…). If this counts as arrogant, then I truly don’t know what to say…
If we understand ‘theodicy’ as any attempt to place evil within a conceptual structure that allow us to make our way in the world, then everyone has one, whether they acknowledge it or not. Even a resolve to embrace the absurdity of life represents some kind of an answer to the problem of evil. To suggest that you can remain comfortably detached from the process, and avoid “arrogantly” coming to a provisional decision on the matter shows, in my opinion, a lack of willingness to enter into an honest discussion.
Ryan, I didn’t say “a polite request for give and take in an honest discussion” is “arrogant”. I said it was arrogant to presume to know the future. And I’m all for theories, even theistic ones. But when these theories are believed to be true, relied upon as a infallible source of comfort, I question the lack of doubt here.
To clarify: Do you believe (and by “believe” I mean have complete confidence) that God will eventually bring all things to a glorious or good end? And do you believe this end will clarify the reason God allowed people to suffer? If so, then are you not believing in a prophecy about the future?
I forgot to assign my name in the last one. Sorry.
You said that it is “arrogant to presume to know the future.”
I agree. When did I claim to know the future? I’ve acknowledged on several occasions that I could be wrong.
“But when these theories are believed to be true, relied upon as a infallible source of comfort, I question the lack of doubt here.”
Is this really the impression you’ve gotten from my comments here or elsewhere? That I consider my beliefs to be infallible? That I don’t think that doubt is appropriate to the human condition? Do you think that it would be better if we believed that our theories were untrue?
“Do you believe (and by “believe” I mean have complete confidence) that God will eventually bring all things to a glorious or good end? And do you believe this end will clarify the reason God allowed people to suffer?”
Yes, I absolutely do.
“If so, then are you not believing in a prophecy about the future?”
If by “prophecy” you mean something like the testimony of scripture, then yes. But in your second comment you used the word in two ways: 1) in the sense described above, and 2) as if I believed that my own views regarding the the problem of evil were equivalent to “prophecy” (“I’m not so arrogant as to presume I have a prophecy” – implying, I assume, that others involved in this conversation are) which I obviously do not.
“In your opinion, why would people be outraged that evil existed?” -Ryan
“I find it curious that those with the most vehement objections to Christian theodicy have, so far, declined the request to offer an alternative.” -Gil
I guess I will try and answer what I think Ryan is asking. I didn’t think I was being particularly vehement in my responses nor anybody else’s. I see a lot of passionate debate going on here which I think is quite good. The reason I haven’t responded yet is because I have a day job during the week and my wife likes me to take her for dinner on fridays. Anyways…
I don’t think everyone has a theodicy. I think having a theodicy implies a belief in a benevolent God. I think people are outraged with the existence of evil because evil is a life destroying force. As you probably know by now I am of the Objectivist persuasion. This philosophy places man’s life as the standard of value[value being that which one acts to gain or keep]. It is understood that rationality must be employed to gain or keep this value[life]. Rationality is defined as “the recognition and acceptance of reason as one’s only source of knowledge, one’s only judge of values and one’s only guide to action.” So then whatever is proper for a rational being to exist is the good and whatever destroys it is evil. Evil and good here apply to man’s actions in response to reality not to objects in reality like stones and water. It is possible to drown in a pool of water but that does not make water evil. So I think people are outraged about evil because it is known that evil destroys life and life is a valuable thing. I hope that answers your question of me.
Now where I think you may wrong is bringing the idea of God into realm of existence. For me it brings up a lot of paradoxes that I have not seen answered, to my satisfaction, by anyone’s theodicy. I have stated some of the questions I think need to be resolved above and so I won’t restate them here.
I have to ask some questions about the statement Ryan reacted to above:
“I’m all for theories, even theistic ones. But when these theories are believed to be true, relied upon as a infallible source of comfort, I question the lack of doubt here.”
Are you actually suggesting that it’s best NOT to believe our theories are true? Or are you saying that it’s best to hold beliefs very tenuously and suspect that it’s highly likely that you’re wrong? Or are you arguing that we should have enough humility to admit that we COULD conceivably be wrong (a position that I would agree with unequivocally)?
I would suggest that the kind of systematic doubt that you allude to is really a way of insulating a person from the possibility of being wrong (as well as an example of a firmly held ‘fundamental belief’ that ought to, in theory, be open to the same level of suspicion).
Could I ask for clarification on the paradoxes you see in the idea of ‘bringing God into the realm of existence’? I think I understand the rest of your most recent post but I’m not understanding the last few sentences.
Ryan, how do you not see a contradiction here:
You said that it is “arrogant to presume to know the future.” I agree. When did I claim to know the future? I’ve acknowledged on several occasions that I could be wrong.
“Do you believe (and by “believe” I mean have complete confidence) that God will eventually bring all things to a glorious or good end? And do you believe this end will clarify the reason God allowed people to suffer?” Yes, I absolutely do.
Did you not just admit you claim to know the future here?
Gil said, “Are you actually suggesting that it’s best NOT to believe our theories are true? Or are you saying that it’s best to hold beliefs very tenuously and suspect that it’s highly likely that you’re wrong? Or are you arguing that we should have enough humility to admit that we COULD conceivably be wrong (a position that I would agree with unequivocally)?”
All of the above sound good to me.
“I would suggest that the kind of systematic doubt that you allude to is really a way of insulating a person from the possibility of being wrong (as well as an example of a firmly held ‘fundamental belief’ that ought to, in theory, be open to the same level of suspicion).”
I’ve had plenty of theories that turned out to be wrong. I’m wrong on a regular basis. Are you suggesting I should doubt the validity of doubt? If so, isn’t that a self-defeating exercise? I’ll doubt the way I doubt, but not doubt itself.
I’m just questioning the validity of seeing the future in any other view other than through theories. But maybe I’ve misunderstood you and Ryan. Are you guys trying to tell me that you’re agnostics in regard to the future of humanity and God? Because if you are, then I’m sorry. I have indeed misunderstood where you stand on this issue of God making things all good in the future.
Yeah you are right about that sentence. Its poorly written. What I was trying to say is that trying to understand God in relation to reality brings into play a lot of paradoxes. The idea of God seems to explain less rather than explain more about the world we live in. Some of paradoxes are… the above mentioned problem of evil. There is the problem of God and time… that is if God exists outside of time and is immutable how is it that he can change his existence and enter into time to become the person of Jesus. This problem is better explained in Tom Morris’ “Our Idea of God.” If God wants all people to be saved and is all powerful why then is he going to send people to eternal suffering in Hell? Does that clarify anything for you?
Jerry, I realize that we don’t know each other, and that words on a screen represent a limited medium of communication in many ways. But judging from the fact that you’ve responded to a post of mine, I assume that you read some of the things I write from time to time, and that you know a few things about how I think. Based on what you’ve read, do I strike you as the kind of person who would claim to “know the future?” I really hope not…
Nonetheless, I’ll respond. You asked me if I believed that God would bring things to a good end. I said yes. I have confidence in the character of God. This may turn out to be poorly founded confidence – God could be a projection of my imagination, my intuitions about evil could prove completely illusory, I could be completely deluded – but it is confidence nonetheless. “Confidence” is not the same thing as “certainty”; “belief” is not the same thing as “knowledge.” You asked me what I “believed” about the future not what I “knew” about the future.
So one more time… I believe (as in “I think that what follows will one day happen, but I do not know with 100% epistemic certainty”) that God will eventually bring all things to a good and glorious end. This is a theory, just like any other.
That was a great post. I will be thinking about all day.
‘You asked me what I “believed” about the future not what I “knew” about the future.’ – Ryan
Thanks for clarifying for me, Ryan. I’m sorry I misunderstood you. I thought, from reading your blog that you were like most evangelicals I run into. I’ve never bumped into an evangelical that says they don’t know if God will perfect their lives for a life in “Heaven” with God. I’ve never met an evangelical who has communicated to me that they are eschatological agnostics.
Admitting the possibility that you could be wrong is not the same as being an agnostic. Agnosticism holds that things like we are discussing here are fundamentally unknowable. So I am not an agnostic on God’s plans for the future. I think knowledge is attainable but never complete because of the limitations of being a finite human being with mixed motivations.
Your enthronement of systematic doubt as a first principle is very confusing to me (your answer: ‘all of the above sound good to me’ is the quote I’m referring to here). You seem like a person with fairly strong convictions so I’ll suggest that you’re not being consistent with your belief that your ideas are probably not true. I don’t think it’s possible for you or anyone else to live as if they believe their basic beliefs about the world are probably false.
In answer to your question: Are you suggesting that I should doubt the validity of doubt? the answer is yes. The kind of doubt that you describe is a coping mechanism. It’s a way of ensuring that you’re never wrong by refusing to commit to the truth of anything. I believe that doubt has a place in the pursuit of truth because it reminds us of our fallibility and ought to encourage honesty and humility. But at some point commitment becomes necessary and that commitment will never be risk-free because we will never have all the information. It’s certainly less risky to content yourself with deconstructing the ideas of others but I think it’s ultimately less satisfying as well.
Thanks for your response. You said
“I don’t think everyone has a theodicy. I think having a theodicy implies a belief in a benevolent God”
When I said that everyone has a theodicy, I defined the word very carefully: “any attempt to place evil within a conceptual structure that allows us to make our way in the world.” I realize that technically ‘theodicy’ refers to a justification of God, but the term is used (by Neiman, among others) in this way, even for completely a-theistic responses to the problem of evil.
So would you classify your response above as a “theodicy,” understood in this way?
Thanks for the clarification. The paradox of the existence of evil alongside the existence of God is probably the most difficult ones for me as well. I hold a modified version of the view that sees evil as a consequence of human freedom. I realize that this does not clear up all the questions but for me it explains the possibility of love. I would hold love to be a higher value for God than freedom and love is not possible if meaningful choice does not exist. I assume that you’ve read some version of this before so maybe the question would be which part of this argument is least satisfying for you?
It seems to me that the paradoxes increase significantly if God is out of the equation because then basic human instincts (in metaphysics and ethics primarily) have to be explained in a way that demonstrates that they have no actual contact with an external reality but merely serve to help us propagate ourselves.
The idea that life or existence is an ultimate value is understandable but it would seem to be a secondary value to me. Why is life valuable? Is mere survival the highest possible good? Or does existence serve some other goal? I would argue that love is a higher and more basic goal than survival because it gives meaning to human existence. The exercise of reason in the effort to survive does not seem like a goal that encompasses some of the more fundamental aspirations that human beings seem to have.
The question of God and time is one that I have not thought much about so I’ll have to get back to you.
You said “I’ve never met an evangelical who has communicated to me that they are eschatological agnostics.”
I’m not sure I would call myself an ‘eschatological agnostic.’ This is your label, not mine. I would only use the term if the word ‘agnostic’ was defined very specifically in a descriptive sense – i.e., as an acknowledgment that 100% certainty about the future is unavailable, for the theist or the atheist. If it’s used in a normative sense – as in, the future’s unknowable so I am absolved of making commitments in the present – then I would not use it. I don’t think it’s quite as black and white as you’re making it out to be – as if our only two options were agnostic resignation or subscribing to some blinkered Left Behind eschatology.
Ryan, you and Gil both assume I’m not committed to anything. If you knew anything about my life, you’d see that’s not the case. I’m just not committed to something imagined about the unforeseen future.
Agnosticism doesn’t imply “resignation”. I’m truly curious about a possible afterlife and the existence of a Supreme Being. But it’s important to me to make sure that an understanding of an afterlife and the existence of a Supreme Being be consistent in its logic, coherent enough for anyone to understand, and believable.
You’re quite right in saying I know nothing about your life. I also know very little about your ideas since you seem quite reluctant to share them. All I can gather is that you are interested in deconstructing some version of evangelical Christian belief but I have no idea how you would answer many of the questions that you comment on.
So if you’re not committed to an opinion on an unforeseen future, what are you committed to regarding the present problem of evil?
“Why is life valuable?”
I think the short answer is because you value your life. You choose existence over non-existence. I am sure you have good reasons for choosing existence over non-existence and taking actions to continue your own existence.
“Is mere survival the highest possible good? Or does existence serve some other goal? I would argue that love is a higher and more basic goal than survival because it gives meaning to human existence.”
You are right that mere survival is not the highest possible good. Being alive in Nazi concentration camp would not be a preferred way to exist. One lives in order achieve happiness, which is the state of consciousness when one has achieved one’s values. This implies the freedom to act to achieve those values. The moral base on which your freedom is founded also implies the freedom of others from physical harm cause by you or anyone else.
And I am trying to understand what you are saying here.
“It seems to me that the paradoxes increase significantly if God is out of the equation because then basic human instincts (in metaphysics and ethics primarily) have to be explained in a way that demonstrates that they have no actual contact with an external reality but merely serve to help us propagate ourselves.”
I think you are saying that evolution doesn’t explain why humans should want to love each other, create art, or watch baseball. That these things aren’t necessary for reproduction so why do they exist? All I can say right now is that, with my current understanding, Objectivism seeks to provide a philosophy that explains reality as it is right now and not how it came to be necessarily. But it is an interesting point and I am going to have to think about it for awhile because I am don’t think that answer I gave is adequate.
You seem to be proposing a new definition for a word that has been commonly used to suggest something else. Is there different word that you would suggest for that old concept of theodicy? The greek roots of that word are God and justice. So I don’t know how you can redefine it so that it would have meaning to a person who did not include God in their worldview. You’d have to take the root ‘Theo’ out. I think what you are getting at seems to be more adequately defined as morality. Concepts of morality can include an idea of God or not.
It seems like this discussion has sort of veered away from the topic of the problem of evil and some of its inconsistencies. Do you think it is more helpful to have a discussion that focuses on a particular theodicy? Or is it more helpful to always explain how a different view might avoid or explain the problem better?
I acknowledged everything that you said regarding the word ‘theodicy’ in my previous comment. I’m aware of the Greek roots of the word; I am only using it in the same manner that others who reflect on the problem of evil from a non-theistic perspective use it. I am not trying to get at the concept of morality. I am getting at the idea that everyone has an explanation or view “that places evil within a conceptual structure that allows us to make our way in the world.” This is the third time that I’ve stated the manner in which I am using the word. Use a different word if it’s a problem for you.
Re: your suggestion that we discuss a particular theodicy. Sounds good to me. Got one in mind?
The ideas of ‘happiness’ and ‘freedom’ and the existence of ‘values’ are not self-evident because they are inconsistent among different people (what if, for example, I find happiness in taking another person’s personal property). Within Objectivism is there a way of defining this word that doesn’t basically boil down to personal preference? Or is some kind of utilitarian standard (most freedom for the greatest number of people) employed? Either way I think it’s difficult to sustain a view that makes individual freedom to pursue happiness the ultimate standard in the realm of ethics because ‘freedom’ and ‘happiness’ are still defined by somebody.
That is why I brought in my questions about how this relates to evolutionary adaptation. They were not explicitly related to your previous comments but I think there is a connection. If what ‘is’ is ‘all there is’ then the questions cannot, in my opinion, be ignored.
“Within Objectivism is there a way of defining this word that doesn’t basically boil down to personal preference?”
well he is a definition “Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction. … Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.”
Objectivism holds that the standard of good is man’s life. The purpose is happiness. If you reverse those two things you will get problems like you stated above. If you replace the standard of good with happiness then one could justify taking someone else’s property. This undermines the moral base that places man’s life as the standard of good. If one takes happiness as the standard of good then you are pretty much giving anyone the right to steal from you or you from them as long as it makes them feel good. Anyways that is a short answer to your question. A longer answer can be found in the “Virtue of seflishness” by Ayn Rand in the first chapter. If you are really interested I don’t mind discussing it but I feel like Ryan will be upset with me. He is already upset with me for hairsplitting and making him repeat something three times for no apparent reason.
I’m not upset – far from it. With respect to my previous comment, I’m pretty careful about how I use words, and I try to make it clear what definitions I’m operating with. So in that sense I do find it a little frustrating when I feel like my efforts to that end are being disregarded.
But I’m certainly not upset with you, and would be happy to hear more about Rand, particularly the following statement:
“Happiness is possible only to a rational man, the man who desires nothing but rational goals, seeks nothing but rational values and finds his joy in nothing but rational actions.”
Is she suggesting that people who, from her perspective, are pursuing non-rational goals are incapable of happiness? From my perspective, this would seem like a virtually impossible claim to back up.
I’m so glad we were able to come this far in the conversation. This is what I like about the deconstructing process. It can help prune away contexts in a conversation to focus on potentially more valuable ones.
I won’t assume you and Ryan are done with looking to a futuristic ideology (and committing yourselves to it), but plenty of time and effort has been put into the future context, making room for the past and the present contexts. (I also appreciate your genuine interest in critiquing any possible theories I may have to offer.)
I think the past context is almost as difficult as the future when trying to justify the presence of evil. But maybe the theorizing becomes easier because we presently have psychological causalities of evil being deciphered by psychotherapists, which may help us speculate on the evolution of evil.
Presently, many evil mistakes are made due to an ignorant understanding of what is hurtful in the long run, to others and ourselves. Which makes me wonder if evil could have started off as a very simple mistake at the beginning of the development of the human species and evolved into a chaotic mess – psychologically, sociologically, politically, etc.
I hope this theodicy is logical, ethical, and practical. It doesn’t excuse the evil caused or alleviate any interest in ensuring evil is not committed again.
And, I hope I’ve provided something worthy of critique, and possibly a catalyst to an even better theory.
“Is she suggesting that people who, from her perspective, are pursuing non-rational goals are incapable of happiness? From my perspective, this would seem like a virtually impossible claim to back up.”
If rational goals lead to upholding the ultimate value of life than irrational goals would lead to the destruction of that value. So one might find some state of happiness in using cocaine but this will only end in their own destruction. She is suggesting one cannot find real happiness in advancing one’s own destruction. Does that do anything to answer your question?
Thanks for providing a positive statement of your view. I’ll take this as the heart of the view you’re recommending here (if I’m wrong, please correct me):
“Presently, many evil mistakes are made due to an ignorant understanding of what is hurtful in the long run, to others and ourselves. Which makes me wonder if evil could have started off as a very simple mistake at the beginning of the development of the human species and evolved into a chaotic mess”
I’m interested in two things here:
1) the word “mistake”
2) the idea that the root cause of evil is human ignorance
Regarding 1), by what criteria are we determining that an amoral naturalistic process has made a “mistake?” Regarding 2), Do you think that history reveals a proportionate decrease in human evil to the extent that human ignorance is alleviated?
So for Rand, “rational” = “happy?” And if someone claims to be finding happiness in ways that do not agree with her definition (there have been people who have claimed to be quite fulfilled and happy as they confidently marched to their deaths – which isn’t to say that they are necessarily correct, just that it does, in fact happen), she would just say that the happiness they thought they were experiencing wasn’t “real” happiness? I’m not sure how a theory like that could ever be falsified.
I confess I have no knowledge of the “psychological causalities of evil being deciphered by psychotherapists” but I’ll do my best to respond to what I did understand.
Based on your statement: “evil could have started off as a very simple mistake at the beginning of the development of the human species and evolved into a chaotic mess,” it seems to me that you have faith in a primordial event where a mistake was inexplicably introduced into a world where there was previously none. It doesn’t have the entertainment value of a naked couple in a beautiful garden with a talking snake but I’m having a difficult time seeing any other differences.
If the existence of evil is rooted in ignorance then I would expect to see problems fade away as literacy and education have become more accessible. I submit that this expectation has been disproven historically.
You ask a good question here and I don’t think I have a completely satisfying answer for you at this point. But I will give it a shot. Does “rational=happy” Not exactly. But being rational is a precondition to long term happiness.
Now as the earlier definition suggested, happiness comes from achievment of rational goals. If it is true that irrational goals will acheive your destruction then how do you expect one to be happy after they achieved their goal? Rationality is defined as using the faculty of reason and sense perception to integrate reality into one’s consciousness. I think if this is true that if your goals are irrational then there will be one of possibly two outcomes. One you will achieve your own destruction or your goal will not be achieved. In either case it does not seem that happiness will be a possible result.
It still seems to me that she’s just defining her terms in such a way that nothing could disconfirm her theory. If someone claimed to be acting rationally according to goals that went beyond personal survival, and if they claimed to be happy while doing so, Rand would just tell them that they weren’t “really” being rational and their happiness was illusory.
“Do you think that history reveals a proportionate decrease in human evil to the extent that human ignorance is alleviated?” – Ryan
“If the existence of evil is rooted in ignorance then I would expect to see problems fade away as literacy and education have become more accessible. I submit that this expectation has been disproven historically.” – Gil
These two comments have to do with humanity’s capability of ridding themselves of evil. Whether self-awareness on a global or individual scale can increase to a greater extent than the evolution of evil’s place in this world, it has no bearing on whether my theory is valid or not. Asking for a soteriological theory, as well, is another matter.
Other than the above, Gil, you seem to want to know how my theory differs from the Christian dogma. Ryan, your concern seems to be on the argument of the theodicy itself.
My theory is a possibility among many. It is not revelation or church dogma professed to be the truth of a history we can’t travel back in time to witness. I don’t believe this theory to be true, but I’m currently committed to it (and I can commit to many more theories).
If there is any “faith” or trust in this theory, it is temporary and tentative, and placed in the practical use of the theory throughout the process of testing its falsifiability. To me, faith should be a means to knowledge, not an end in itself.
The measure of the above theory’s falsifiability starts in the present day, through direct observation. Then, we start looking for evidence of the cause of evil, moving back into the past, reading historical texts and ancient literature that reveal the authors’ awareness of this cause of evil. (And any further archeological finds may help us with this as well.) Obviously, this theory requires much research and study. But the premises are based in the observable.
“Whether self-awareness on a global or individual scale can increase to a greater extent than the evolution of evil’s place in this world, it has no bearing on whether my theory is valid or not.”
“If there is any “faith” or trust in this theory, it is temporary and tentative, and placed in the practical use of the theory throughout the process of testing its falsifiability.”
I have no idea how you can hold these two statements together. On the one hand your theory cannot be disproved by historical, observable evidence. On the other hand your theory depends on whether or not it works practically. I realize that you make a distinction between historical and present evidence but I do not understand the basis for that. What is it about contemporary evidence that trumps our knowledge of the past?
So at rock-bottom you seem to have a theory that depends on observable evidence but cannot be falsified through contrary evidence. How convenient.
Just so I’m absolutely clear, the theodicy which you take to be “consistent in its logic, coherent enough for anyone to understand, and believable” is that evil is the result of an evolutionary mistake (which happened we know not why, nor by what criteria it is being evaluated as such) and that our best hope for its eradication is the elimination of human ignorance, although we shouldn’t expect to see evil decreasing as humans become less ignorant.
Gil said: “So at rock-bottom you seem to have a theory that depends on observable evidence but cannot be falsified through contrary evidence. How convenient.” [my emphasis]
Isn’t it more convenient to blithely say that God ultimately redeems everything? When I was growing up in the church, whenever I had a serious question about faith, heaven and hell, or any other issue, and the person I asked had no idea how to answer my query — I was always told, “God will make things right in the end.”
Isn’t that exactly what you’re proposing here? I wasn’t satisfied with that answer when I was young, and it’s still just as unappealing today. It smacks of a deus ex machina, where I must suspend my disbelief (and any questions I may have) in order to accept whatever is being proposed.
I didn’t realize that a theodicy requires an “eradication” of evil as a part of its theory. No definition I’ve found confirms this requirement you’re assuming, and quite frankly, the simplistic panacea to resolve evil that you’re advocating is just as unsatisfying as the trite non-response I received growing up.
Should I take your arrival in this discussion, and the fact that we’re back to hurling invective (“simplistic panacea,” “trite nonsense”) against caricatured versions of Christian belief instead of discussing the merits of the theodicy Jerry set forth, as a sign that the view has little to commend itself?
Jerry’s theodicy is what’s under discussion right now, not the inadequate version of Christian belief that, unfortunately, you received as a child. I am applying his own criteria of logical consistency to the view he has set forth. This seems like a perfectly reasonable request to me – one that doesn’t warrant either your attempt to change the subject or the tone with which you did it.
I don’t think it’s fair to accuse Gil and Ryan of being blithe. While you may not agree with their beliefs, they have certainly taken a lot of time to carefully define their terms, have thoughtfully considered criticisms, have engaged in respectful conversation, and have acknowledged that they are seeking the best answers possible. I think you should be careful to show them the same consideration.
Unfortunately there is stuff like this out there. I am not sure Ryan and Gil are guilty by association.
“I am not sure Ryan and Gil are guilty by association.”
After 50+ posts, in which Gil and Ryan have engaged in sincere and thoughtful conversation with you (and others), you then slap them in the face with that kind of a comment?!
On a third read, I may have misunderstood your post. Now I’m thinking you were defending Ryan and Gil.
I should have followed my own advice and first asked you to clarify. Could you, please?
I wasn’t going to comment again, but it seems as if my response (which I thought was fairly straightforward) is in need of further clarification. So far, the reactions to my comment are deflecting the focus away from what I said about various proposed theodices. I’ll clarify:
I have been silently observing this discussion for days. Yes, I realize that my comments and phrasing were not the most relational as they could have been — but I am simply continuing the tone previously set (one I would not necessarily deem “respectful”).
Ryan, I never called your evil-ultimately-redeemed theodicy “trite nonsense.” I said it was a trite non-response, which is very different than dismissing it as nonsense. By non-response, I meant that this approach doesn’t actually address the problem/justification of evil’s existance, but simply avoids it all together by looking to the future for its resolution. I think calling it a panacea isn’t invective, either. Aren’t you actually proposing some type of ultimate cure-all for the problem of evil? (if not, then what?)
I notice that several elements of what I wrote in my comment have been ignored. I asked which definition of a theodicy requires that it include a theory on the eradication of evil — since several in this discussion seem to be concerned that it is a missing element in Jerry’s proposed theodicy.
It was just a joke J. It was a sort of defense as you suggested in that second response. But more of a joke just to sort of lighten things up. Sometimes its hard to convey these things on a blog. Anyways, it wasn’t meant to slap anyone or offend anyone except for fans of Kirk Cameron and Growing Pains.
Re: theodicies not requiring the eradication of evil
What good is a theodicy that doesn’t offer some justification for resisting evil and an element of hope for the future?
Part of what it means to offer a justification of God in light of evil, or, if you prefer, a way of dealing with the existence of evil from an atheistic perspective that accounts for the phenomenology of evil and the human instinct that it ought not to be, has to do with how to get rid of it.
Susan Neiman (Evil in Modern Thought), not an evangelical as far as I can tell, provides the following minimal criteria for what would constitute an adequate theodicy:
“Theodicy, in the broad sense, is any way of giving meaning to evil that helps us face despair. Theodicies place evils with structures that allow us to go on in the world. Ideally, they should reconcile us to past evils while providing direction in preventing future ones.”
This seems like a good start to me. You may feel that looking to the future for the ultimate justification/solution for the problem of evil is a “non-response” (how heart-warming to hear that you only consider my ideas to be non-responses, rather than nonsense) but when I see a problem that is so pervasive throughout human history which seems to remain despite advances in all other areas of human learning and development, I feel that I am justified in considering the possibility that ultimately human beings lack the ability to solve this problem on our own. Of course it’s possible to rule out a priori the possibility that a belief in a divine solution to the problem could be the result of sustained thought and reasoned reflection, but I don’t see why that’s necessary or desirable. I’m hardly alone here. There are one or two intelligent philosophers who take the “easy way out” and look to the future for ultimate explanations of evil…
I realize that you think this makes me an escapist who is simply “avoiding the issue altogether.” I respectfully disagree. I have been wrestling with the problem of evil, in one form or another, for at least six years now. I have studied evolutionary accounts of the origins of evil and on what grounds it is to be resisted such as the one Jerry is recommending during my time in university. I wrote an undergraduate thesis related to the problem of evil in a philosophy department comprised exclusively of atheists who would have been less than sympathetic to any pie-in-the-sky theodicy that did not adhere to the expected standards of logical rigour and clarity. No one who read this, or interacted with my “futuristic” ideas in other classes seemed to consider me to be simplistically providing a “panacea” or “avoiding the issue altogether.”
No other theodicy I have come across provides me with the combination of a basic attempt to explain evil’s origins and the justification for and resources to resist evil on this planet that I find in orthodox Christianity. Getting back to the issue that was under discussion prior to your arrival, I fail to see how locating the root of the problem in human ignorance, and then disqualifying evidence which suggests that evil seems to persist, no matter how enlightened we become, provides direction in preventing future evils.
Do you think that evil exists at the same prevalence in every society on Earth or in history? Or are some societies more susceptible to acts of evil because of the nature of their governance or a willingness of some to sanction evil. For me I see much less evil in a more free society like the USA or Canada then societies like Nazi German, Soviet Russia, and China. I think that the persistence of evil possibly can partly be attributed to ignorance but also people do seem to give power to evil by sanctioning it not necessarily because they do not know better.
Sorry, about that.
BTW, I had a good chuckle about the Growing Pains bit.
I suppose a lot would depend on how the word “evil” is defined and who is doing the defining. You may see less evil in a free society like the USA; someone from Iraq might beg to differ.
I appreciate the above response and clarification regarding your view of a theodicy — especially considering my comment was first discounted as an “inadequate” and “caricatured” interruption in the discussion.
I only wish my questions were taken this seriously the first time I asked them, and that my initial comment didn’t automatically require a follow up (on my part) of defending myself for objecting/asking questions, and then obligating me to correct your misreadings of what I originally said. Again, this isn’t the first time my comments have been perceived as such by you in an online discussion — but that’s another topic altogether.
I acknowledge the fact that I’m not in an equivalent position to keep debating you on your view of theodicies — and while I was late in contributing my ideas to the discussion (I didn’t realize there was such a stigma attached to late arrivals), I thought you were open to face any challenges your theory may evoke… especially considering you’re writing extensively on the subject. As someone who’s nearing the end of a thesis project herself, I know it’s often better to cover objections to your theories early on in your writing — rather than wait to be blindsided by them at the defense.
While I may respectfully disagree with your perspective, I can respect your position when you take my objections seriously — which your second response to me clearly has. Thank you for that.
I feel I must clarify a few more things here:
1) I did not “discount” your comment as “inadequate” or “caricatured.” I characterized the articulation of Christianity you received as “inadequate” (a characterization which I am led to believe you would agree with) and the version of it you presented in an attempt to divert attention away from our discussion of an evolutionary theodicy as “caricatured.”
2) If you feel your comments were not taken seriously the first time, I can only say that we were in the middle of a discussion about several points in Jerry’s theodicy (which have yet to be addressed) when you entered on the inadequacies of futuristic theodicies based on the Christian teaching of your childhood. It’s not always easy to keep three or four balls in the air in a lengthy discussion such as this one; nevertheless I’m sorry that I did not respond to your specific issue in a prompt enough manner for you.
3) I take issue with the following comment: “I thought you were open to face any challenges your theory may evoke… especially considering you’re writing extensively on the subject”
I am. I’m curious as to why, in a post that is over sixty comments long now, it would occur to you that I am not. I’d be happy for you to direct my attention to any particular issue that you feel I have not addressed to your satisfaction.
You said: “I didn’t realize there was such a stigma attached to late arrivals.”
Come on. Your first post began with the comment, “Isn’t it more convenient to blithely say that God ultimately redeems everything?” The term “blithe” suggests an uncaring attitude or an unthoughtful approach.
Is it any surprise that there would be some defensiveness when you enter a conversation with that sort of antagonism?
Now, you also mentioned that you were highly suspicious of Ryan and Gil’s ideas b/c of some past experiences. Fair enough. (I’m suspicious of plenty of Christian ideas and beliefs b/c of my own past hurts as well.) But can you see how there might be some perceived hostility?
My point is this: to claim that you have been stigmatized is simply inappropriate. For one, Ryan has taken the time to consider your comments. Perhaps he hasn’t been as quick in his responses, and perhaps he has misunderstood you, and perhaps his comments aren’t as satisfying as you would like. But you asked him a question, and he seems to have done his best to reply.
Furthermore, it seems to me that you might be stigmatizing Ryan and Gil. It seems to me you’re lumping them in with the Christians who have hurt you. I’m only guessing here, but it seems like you’re reacting against a kind of fundamentalist(?), conservative(?), evangelical(?) Christianity that was unfair, inhospitable and disprespectful of you and your ideas. Now, that’s not to say that what happened in to you was good or fine. On the contrary, I suggest that Ryan and Gil would (and, in fact, do) react against such a theology that would lead to such an experience.
It seems to me that Ryan and Gil have done their best (at least most of the time) to be considerate of your ideas and questions. Perhaps you might consider the possibility that your perspective might be biased to some extent?
What I’m getting at is this: I agree that you should be dignified with good answers and respectful conversation. I think Ryan and Gil have mostly done that. You have also said that you want to be respectful in your remarks, even when you disagree. To then suggest that a stigma is attached to late comers really isn’t all that fair or accurate or helpful or gracious, is it?
“I suppose a lot would depend on how the word “evil” is defined and who is doing the defining. You may see less evil in a free society like the USA; someone from Iraq might beg to differ.”
1. Am I to assume here that you advocate a subjective view of evil? You seem to imply that in your last response to me and I think it is a little disingenuous because I don’t really think you believe that.
2. It probably depends on who you ask in Iraq. At least the Kurds would probably be happy about the US invasion. We might even get a different answer from some of the Iraqi’s a couple of years down the road. It is at least debatable. I really don’t want to discuss U.S. foreign policy right now so if you want we can stick to Canadian society. I would think at least that you could agree that Canadian society is less plagued by evil then some other societies in Africa. Some of this, in part, is due to the establishment of rule of law and some education on moral principles. Would you argue against this?
Becky and I have been talking about how this conversation has been evolving (and dissolving) since it first began.
Our deconstructing process has fallen into a perseverance of misreadings, misunderstandings, and tonal issues. I’m not interested in a marathon. I thought I was invited by Gil in this comment to present a theory without any of us referring to the future context. And I accepted the invitation.
I know it may seem “convenient” to some that I am now bowing out, but it’s clear to me from this conversation that there is a fundamental disagreement about what a theodicy should include. I’m not willing to enter the foretell-the-future context, and my critics are not willing to stay out of it.
This is the first time I’ve articulated this theory. I really haven’t thought about it much. But I’d like some good debate over it to find its holes, weaknesses and inconsistencies. However, I’ve chosen the wrong forum for doing so.
I can’t help but mention the fact that I did provide a critique of your theory that had nothing to do with foretelling the future. My last comment (‘how convenient’) was unnecessarily sarcastic and for that I apologize. But I will remind you that I pointed out a basic logical flaw in your theory and this flaw was never addressed. If you are truly interested in debating over the holes, weaknesses and inconsistencies in your theory then I would welcome a response.
Having said that this conversation has gone on long enough, probably long past the point of being productive so it may not be worthwhile to continue it.
Thanks for your input. I hope you find a forum for discussing your views that is more up to your argumentative standards.
You’re quite right, I do believe in objective good and evil. The reason I used the example I did was to suggest that there are plenty of evils that fall short of the truly awful evils you alluded to (i.e., if Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Maoist China are the standards by which we’re measuring whether or not something is evil, not much would qualify). Nonetheless, I could have said so in a much clearer fashion – the way I worded my response was poor.
“I would think at least that you could agree that Canadian society is less plagued by evil then some other societies in Africa. Some of this, in part, is due to the establishment of rule of law and some education on moral principles. Would you argue against this?”
No, I would not argue against this.
So then one might have reason to say some systems of governments are better than others in limiting the extent which evil can impact society. I would say this is because some governments are more rational than others. They set out the conditions in which man is allowed to flourish better than their more irrational counterparts. Some of the conditions include a rule of law, free trade, free speech, and property rights. I think then man at least has some power over limiting evil. Ofcourse there will still be criminal behavior but criminals in free societies seem to be a very small part of the population. This does not completely eliminate evil it just limits it to having a much smaller impact. Anyways that is where I was going with my recent questions of you. I am not sure if you want to continue discussion at this time on any of the topics presented so far. You might be tired of this topic for the time being and if so we can pick up at a later time.
Have you ever read Pope John Paul II’s “Centesimus Annus”? I think you’d find it interesting b/c he articulates a similar outlook, although he suggests that it’s more than just rationality that motivates good government. (He is also remarkably pro-capitalist, too.) You might want to check it out sometime…
I think I would agree with your statement. Human beings certainly have the ability to organize and govern themselves in ways that limit the scope of evil. I would want to be careful not to say that “rule of law, free trade, free speech, and property rights” are simply unqualified goods – they can certainly have their dark sides as well. I was reading an article in the NY Times this week that had something to do with the difficulty the US Supreme Court is having in drawing the line between child pornography and freedom of speech. The fact that this is even an issue suggests to me that human beings can and do find ways to bring evil out of many good things, even in civilized countries governed by the rule of law.