Tuesday, June 29, 2010

theodicy redux!

You'll need some background before you read the following response to Dr. Horace Jeffery Hodges.

It all began with Malcolm Pollack's recent citation of my and Bill Keezer's exchange on theodicy with Roman Dawes, over at Bill's fine blog. Here's the link to Malcolm's post, Evil Still a Problem, Apparently, which links back to Bill's original post and comment thread on theodicy. Malcolm's comment thread includes a response by Dr. Hodges, who reposted his response on his own blog, with some additional remarks. See here: The Logical Problem of Evil?

Dr. Hodges had commented that there exists a general consensus among philosophers (of religion) that the supposed contradictions highlighted by the original formulation of the theodicic problem are not provably contradictory. In my reply, I asked for references to this broad agreement, which led Dr. Hodges, on his own blog and by way of example, to link to a passage from William L. Rowe's God and the Problem of Evil—specifically, a section titled "The Logical Problem of Evil." Rowe, in the introduction to Part II of his book, highlights the now-classic "free-will defense" formulated by Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga as a way of laying out the logical problem. [NB: whether Rowe agrees with Plantinga is another matter, since Rowe is an atheist who has formulated his own arguments against the existence of God.]

What follows is a response that I began writing on Malcolm's blog (before I saw Dr. Hodges's subsequent blog post), and finished writing only a few minutes ago.


Thank you. You write:

But why is this a contradiction? The contradiction needs to be clearly demonstrated, but such a contradiction cannot be demonstratively shown, for God’s omniscience and our epistemological situation of limited knowledge leave open the possibility that God has a good reason for allowing evil that we simply do not know and perhaps cannot even understand.

This does indeed sound like an appeal to the "hidden harmony" argument, or something similar, given that it reaches for some occult justification of the existence of evil and suffering, thereby obliquely referencing a perspective unavailable to us here below.

Most refutations of the hidden-harmony argument hinge on the definition of divine omnibenevolence. If the term has any meaning at all, it has to mean that God desires maximal fulfillment for all his creatures. It cannot mean anything less than this, for anything less would entail less-than-maximal fulfillment for at least one creature. God's "good reason" for creaturely suffering, whether occult or simply unknowable, necessarily violates this definition of omnibenevolence, even if we restrict the discussion merely to what God desires, without considering how the universe has actually turned out (i.e., execution of that desire). The epistemological question—whether we can know God's "good reason"—is thus irrelevant, and I think the only possible response is aggressively to question the meaning of the term "omnibenevolence." Alvin Plantinga's "free-will defense" leans in this direction, without actually exploring what such divine omnibenevolence might look like. For Plantinga (whom William Rowe quotes), it is enough to demonstrate that such divine reasoning is logically possible. Implied in this move is a justification for a less-than-maximally-good state of affairs, which is by implication a defense of a radically different (I would say radically deficient) notion of omnibenevolence. Is it satisfactory? Many thinkers believe so, but as Allen Stairs notes in his A Thinker's Guide to the Philosophy of Religion, Plantinga has teased out his defense to a potentially ridiculous extreme (p. 209):

Like the Freewill [sic] Theodicy, a major objection to the Freewill Defense is that it cannot account for natural evil. Plantinga points out that it is logically possible that natural evil is caused by Satan or lesser demons. This might sound wildly implausible... but remember that because Plantinga is giving a defense and not a theodicy, all he needs to show is that it is logically possible (i.e., involves no contradiction) that all natural evil is caused by malevolent spiritual beings. If he's right, the Freewill Defense accounts for natural evil by collapsing it into moral evil.

Plantinga's "solution" seems either to push the problem back a step (instead of asking about the existence of evil, we're now focused on the existence of Satan and his minions), or to render the matter circular: his claim is, after all, that the source of evil is evil (by which I mean the noun, not the predicate adjective).

Switching gears: even if we do bring epistemology into the equation, we see right away that it doesn't require a divine mind to note the existence of human evil and suffering. The deliverances of the senses provide enough evidence that this world is less than maximally fulfilling. Everything else then follows: God knows of this state of affairs (omniscience) yet does nothing to rectify it (unexercised omnipotence). All of this militates against God's being omnibenevolent—a stance implicitly taken by Elie Wiesel in Night. Allen Stairs, in his Thinker's Guide, calls this argument from observed facts "the abductive argument," i.e., an argument that makes the best possible sense of the evidence at hand. The force of the empirical evidence (or so it is contended) is such that no coherent theology can both explain reality as it is and posit an omnibenevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent God.

I should step back for a second and note that the so-called "argument from evil" is generally used to "prove" that God doesn't exist. I agree with John Hick that the cosmos presents itself as "religiously ambiguous," as he puts it, thus making it impossible to prove or disprove God's existence through logic. For myself, the argument from evil strikes me as an argument about the self-contradictory ways in which God is conceived. At best, it's one argument in support of a more general one about the incoherence of personalistic theism, but can't be counted as a forceful disproof of God's existence.

Final remark: the fundamental "problem" in the "problem of evil" arises from the idea that an originally pristine, harmonious moral and physical cosmos cannot possibly give rise to anything less than that perfect initial state of affairs. See John Hick, Dialogues in the Philosophy of Religion (2010 edition of 2001 volume), page 8:

But more basically, the idea that God initially created a perfect universe—in the sense of a dependent universe that was as God wanted it to be—which then went radically wrong through the choices of free beings within it, is self-contradictory. Finitely perfect beings in a finitely perfect environment, although free to sin, will not do so. If they do, they were not perfect after all. And so if God is the creator ex nihilo of everything other than God, then God cannot escape the ultimate responsibility for the entire history of the universe, including the 'fall' of the creatures who are part of it.

This is, I think, the basic point being made by people who reject theodicies. God, especially as classically conceived, can't be exculpated when it comes to the question of evil and suffering. Either there exists a morally deficient (or non-classical) God, or God simply doesn't exist.



Anonymous said...

Kevin, you have presented the other possible argument in this discussion, namely that God is not (classically) omnibenevolent. I notice that neither of us opts for the less-than-omniscient solution to the problem. At least in my case, I would consider a less-than-omniscient God not to be effectively either omnibenevolent or omnipotent.

BTW I made some rather pointed comments to Bob Koepp at Malcolm's comment thread just now.

Kevin Kim said...

Bob's a good guy-- very sharp. I'm not sure that his "infantile" comment on Malcolm's blog was meant as a reflection of where he himself stands; his comments are normally thoughtful and respectful. (I'll let Bob speak for himself, though.)

I do, however, think he's dead serious about the potential vagueness inherent in any discussion of core theological/religious/philosophical concepts-- God, freedom, free will, causation, good, evil, etc. Bob is probably right to note that God, as a concept, is messy if we take a "from the ground up" approach to how the concept has arisen and evolved in human discourse. However, my own response would be that, for the academics who discuss theodicy, the concept of God has been rather honed and rarefied-- a point driven home in most philosophy of religion courses, which include a segment on concepts of God.

Kevin Kim said...

I also think that divine omniscience, as classically conceived, presents its own problems. First, there's the difficulty with reconciling omniscience and human freedom. Second, as Rem Edwards points out in Reason and Religion, there's the problem with reconciling God's omniscience with God's own actions: if God knows what God is going to do... is God free? Omniscience seems to preclude omnipotence.

It's a logical morass, but a theist can "solve" all these problems by asserting that God is trans-logical. However, this stance sets him against a long, long Christian tradition that posits a God who is incapable of performing logical absurdities (he can't create a round square, or create a God equal to himself in all respects, or simultaneously exist and not exist, for example).