Theodicy and Free Will

Good discussion today, we covered a lot of ground.

The conversation began around the problem of evil, something we have touched on before This is an ancient problem. It was formulated by the Greek philosopher Epicurus.

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent.

Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.

Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil?

Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

— The Epicurean paradox, ~300 BCE

To help us out on this, we watched the Crash Course Philosophy video on this topic,

We explored a couple of different responses to this argument. The first is that the argument, in a way, undermines itself. If you say that the allowance of suffering by God is “evil,” but then conclude that God does not exist, you are at pains to explain the basis for your definition of “evil.” It’s a case of begging the question. A way out of this would be to argue that the system is only internally incoherent. It is not necessary for the arguer to agree with Christianity’s definition of good/evil in order to point out that its God’s actions appear to be evil by the rules of its own system. It is not necessary to agree with the premises of an argument in order to demonstrate that it is faulty. The problem is then to show how, by Christianity’s own rules, God is acting in an “evil” manner. Then the question comes down to Biblical evidence. And the Bible consistently reiterates that God is good, and that everything he does is good, even if it is to allow evil, natural or otherwise.

There are other responses. One common defense is the free will defense, which says that God, in his omnipotence, has allowed humans to have free will, and that humans misuse this free will. That explains human evil, but it doesn’t explain natural evil. And isn’t this another way of saying that God isn’t all-powerful, even if it’s his decision to become less powerful? If you have human free will (as it is commonly conceived, i.e., God does not control what people do), then you don’t have an all-powerful God.

But there are even more problems. In the free-will formulation, God’s saving grace is an outstretched hand, which we freely grasp. But there are problems with this on the basis of the doctrines of sin and atonement. In the doctrine of sin, man’s heart is inherently corrupt, and it is impossible for him to save himself; it is impossible for him to turn his heart toward God. God has to act first, and that’s part of what the crucifixion was all about–God’s act of salvation. Instead of an outstretched hand that we freely choose to grasp as we are drowning in sin, it is a hand that reaches down into the water and pulls us out when we don’t even know that we are drowning, don’t even have the good sense to look for a hand to save us. If we are able to freely grasp the hand–to choose salvation–then what was the point of the cross? Merely an invitation? (And wouldn’t this mean that, theoretically, it were possible that all men choose against salvation, and then that Christ had died completely in vain?) If we follow this train of reasoning, it seems we must continue to limit God’s power and efficacy; he is not omnipotent.

If God is omnipotent, does his sovereignty mean that we don’t make decisions, that we are not responsible, etc.? Not necessarily. Only a certain formulation of free will says that it is incompatible with God’s sovereign control (hence the parenthetical  “as it is commonly conceived”). But another formulation says that the two can coexist, in the same way that light, studied under one circumstance exhibits the qualities of a wave, while under another exhibits the qualities of a particle. We don’t have the categories in which these two can coexist, but does that mean it is not possible? No.

God’s absolute sovereignty and initiative in salvation raises the specter of predestination, and its distasteful offspring, double predestination (God destines certain people for heaven, and others for hell, apparently arbitrarily). As offensive as these doctrines are, their offense does not prove them false. We will wrestle with this issue another time.

If the free-will defense fails and God is in sovereign control, then it appears that he is ultimately responsible for evil, even if we try to dodge the issue semantically by saying he merely “allows” it. How can else can we overcome this issue?

Another potential response attempts to dismantle the argument itself. The problem of evil asserts that the allowance of suffering is an unforgivable crime that God commits. But why is it a crime? Is the allowance of suffering bad? Is suffering the worst thing? We can all see how good often comes from suffering. The suffering in itself is unpleasant, and therefore probably “bad,” but if God is ultimately responsible for it, he has at least included in its design the reality that it can produce some sort of greater good, and in Christianity, he has taken responsibility for it by himself becoming a human and undergoing suffering, and using that suffering ultimately as the means of our own salvation.

You ask: Why does it have to be suffering? Why couldn’t he have chosen a less painful way to shape the world and work out his good purpose? Well, to ask these questions is to assert that you have a pretty good idea about the way the universe works–in fact, such a good idea that you can then assert that it would have been better if it had been designed differently from how it was. The proper retort, and the one that comes at the end of the Book of Job, is: are you in the businesses of creating universes? If you are, feel free to go ahead and create a better one than this. If not, then you are not in a position to judge the creator of the universe in his business of creating it. By many accounts, the assumptions behind the problem-of-evil argument are ones of unsupportable arrogance, grossly overestimating mankind’s understanding of and position in the universe.

This is a frustrating answer, because it doesn’t offer a counterclaim; it doesn’t give a reason why God allows suffering. But it rebuts to the problem of evil in two ways that seem sufficient to me: it says that no one has any business raising the objection in the first place, and additionally observes that even if we don’t know the reasons for God’s allowance of suffering, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any.

Although this type of discussion tends to exclude those who are not of the Christian faith, some found it helpful to be reminded that the religious system they object to as an atheist or agnostic is not a holistic system with all points of doctrine agreed upon by all adherents. There are many internal issues in all of these systems–Christianity, atheism, etc.–some of which are of crucial importance not only for those who subscribe to them but also to those who reject them.

Action and Intent

Why should one be generous?

That was the question we started with today. One of us had run across an argument that ran something like this: one should be generous because it gives you a self-satisfaction that nothing else can give you. But then, the question is, isn’t that then not really generosity but selfishness? And what happens after an act of generosity that is ineffective or poorly received? (“They totally didn’t appreciate what I did for them–my generous effort was wasted!”)

So, if the reason behind being generous can’t be only because it makes you feel good (although, happily, that is often a side-effect), why be generous? Why is generosity good?

As is the case with all of the ethical questions we discuss, we reached an impasse, but having discussed ethics so much, we reached it rather quickly. Either generosity is, of itself, inherently good (and there is no way to prove that), or it is good because it is dependent upon something else–a chain of reasoning, or a dictum from God.

We discussed the problems with morality from “God says so.” While this is actually a way to solve the ethics problem, people bristle at it. It’s a conversation-stopper, and it seems overly simple. Shouldn’t there be a chain of apparent reasoning in addition, if in fact morality comes from God?

There’s much to say on this issue, but our conversation instead turned to the analysis of moral actions themselves: specifically centering around the question of action vs. intent. Can someone commit an evil action with a good intent?

For the sake of argument, we all agreed that Hitler’s actions of genocide were evil. But his intent was to promote human flourishing. At first, it appears that it is possible to have a good intention but to go about it in an evil way that actually prevents it from being achieved.

But, I argued, Hitler’s vision of human flourishing is quite different from ours–one that involves racial purity. So, it’s not enough to say that Hitler’s goal was “human flourishing” and dismiss it at that. We have a different conception of human flourishing that does not involve racial purity, therefore we would never have need of genocide in going about achieving it. The goal, at least in part, dictates the action.

Thus, it may be that since the action is dependent in no small way on the intent, the separation of the two is artificial. The intent is embedded in the action. Again: is it possible to commit an evil act with a good intention, or does the evil present in the act indicate evil intent?

We explored this a little bit with the example of Robin Hood. Robin Hood’s crime of robbery might be evil, committed for the greater good of redistributing wealth and caring for the poor. But, would it not be possible to say that Robin Hood’s act of robbery, while a crime under law, was actually the breaking of an unjust law (which stipulated that the wealthy should maintain their wealth while the poor should suffer), and therefore actually a just/good action?

What if Robin Hood killed someone during his act of robbery? Would that still be achieving a good end through evil means? Well, partly this depends on the circumstances of the killing, but we concluded that the act of killing is separate from the act of robbery, and therefore its intent could (should?) be considered separately. If Robin Hood kills someone out of fear of being killed himself–a preemptive, defensive killing–then he is doing so with the intent of preserving his mission, supported by an unjustifiable prediction of the future: how does he know that no one will continue his mission if he is killed? However, if his intention is different–to commit a virtuous robbery without harming anyone unless necessary (whatever that might mean)–the killing will not happen. The intent dictates the action.

Even in the case of the US capture of Osama Bin Laden, the civilian casualties indicate something about the goal. The vision included the potential for civilian casualties. If the intent were for a more righteous capture of Osama Bin Laden, the actions would not have been the same–we might have waited for a more opportune time, or gone about it in a less destructive (although perhaps potentially less effective) manner.

We concluded that actions, being highly dependent upon intent, actually include intent as an embedded aspect. The two are inseparable.

Our conversation drifted to various topics: transgenderism, feminism, gender, the idea of rights in general. An interesting question was, if gender is only a societal construct, can there be any justification for gender reassignment surgery on the basis of someone “knowing” they are a certain way?

The arguments for certain of these positions seemed pretty poor, and it appears that many people choose their positions based on their feelings rather than any sort of rational or critical thought process. I recalled a passage from Alasdair MacIntyre about how the shrill “protest” that we see in marches and rallies comes from the subconscious knowledge of the protesters that they can’t actually win their case in rational argument, so they must put on a display of emotion as a means of persuasion instead.
After having discussed many hot-button issues calmly and in the space of about ten minutes, we lamented how easily people are swept up emotionally and hang on to certain positions even though they are clearly not tenable. An acquaintance of mine told me recently that he decides his beliefs based on interpreting the facts of his life objectively–but what manner of interpretation is objective? (Doesn’t objectivity rule out any sort of interpretation by definition?) And what constitutes “facts,” especially when it comes to one’s own life or experience? After a certain point, knowing about philosophy is, in a way, like knowing that the emperor has no clothes. We get in arguments with people forgetting that they still think the emperor has clothes on. It’s no wonder these arguments are frustrating and go nowhere–many people are not aware of the philosophical assumptions they hold, or if they are, they take them as “givens.”

Addicted to Love (and Apologetics Continued)

We picked up essentially where we left off, launching right into the arguments for the existence of God. Steven had done some outside research, looking into Aquinas’ arguments. The one he found most compelling was the first cause argument: that everything has a cause, but there must have been something at first without a cause. This led into a discussion of Aristotle’s four causes, since many of these arguments rest on Aristotelian metaphysics. Aristotle’s efficient cause is what we normally think of to be “cause” in our contemporary understanding, but there were three others that are also used to frame arguments for God. Our understanding of these arguments is necessarily impoverished because we don’t subscribe to these metaphysics. I will post some resources on these later, since our discussion mostly consisted of me trying (badly) to remember them, and not really understanding them sufficiently.

We then discussed the problem of evil: if God is all-good and all-powerful, why is there suffering and evil? This is a common objection to the existence of God (at least a good God), but my assertion was that this actually doesn’t function as an argument against the existence of God, since it necessarily assumes that God already exists in order to be meaningful. It is essentially an “interior” issue within the belief system, not an objection from outside of it. In any case, it is a problem, and there are a couple of responses. A common response is the free-will argument: God is not ultimately responsible for evil–human beings are. It was good for God to give humans free will, but humans misuse that free will, and therefore evil exists. There are a couple of problems with this argument. First, it fails to explain natural evil and suffering–natural disasters, disease, etc. Second, a potential loophole is the question, well wasn’t it up to God to give people free will? And in doing so, didn’t he know that people would commit evil, and therefore isn’t he ultimately still responsible for evil? There are some responses to this. Greg Boyd argues a position called “open theism” in which case God is said, in a way, not to know. This view is obviously problematic with a lot of what we see in scripture and with much theology about God’s omniscience and foreknowledge, but it is one potential response. A second response to the problem of evil is to identify a couple other problems with the argument itself, and those are that it assumes: 1) the allowance for suffering is not good, and 2) we as humans have a viewpoint comprehensive and objective enough to know that the universe would have been better had it been created without the inclusion of or potentiality for evil. Both of these assumptions are contestable. If there is a God, we are not that God, therefore we have no grounds on which to judge the act of creation, nor do we therefore have grounds on which to say that the inclusion of suffering in its design is ultimately an evil thing. The Bible itself (see the Book of Job) seems to say as much. This response is disconcerting–it does not easily satisfy the cognitive and emotional dissonance we feel over this issue. But I find it compelling, and see that it is sufficient as a rebuttal to the argument.

We left off here, and revisited the topic of artificial intelligence. The question this time was whether or not artificial intelligence could be said to be conscious, and whether or not it could be said to act deliberately. Aristotle separates human beings from the animals using this as one of his criteria: that human beings are deliberate agents. As such, it seemed to us that artificial intelligence does not meet this criteria. Whatever “deliberation” occurs is predetermined by its programming, and so artificial intelligence is simply following its programming to a predetermined end. The goal of artificial intelligence is ultimately the execution of its code. Human beings have a different sort of end or goal (telos in Aristotelian language), and seem to have a different level of awareness of the sensory data taken in and analyzed. Artificial intelligence only responds to stimulus; human beings deliberate.

The final topic of interest was that of romantic love, and whether an addiction to romantic love might qualify as a type of disorder, such as might be categorized in the DSM. First we had to delineate what constitutes romantic love versus other types of love (such as long-term relational love, the love of beauty, or a love of ice cream, for example), and we seemed to settle on “romantic love” as defined by the chemical responses in the brain that create the emotional “high” that someone gets at the onset of a new romantic relationship, for example. Then we determined that such a chemical response is not properly called an addiction yet–the chemicals in themselves don’t necessitate addiction. Addiction is a response to the chemicals, not the chemicals themselves. We all seemed to agree that this is at least a possibility, though not a reality for some, if not most people who experience romantic love.

Then, we raised the larger question: what merits inclusion in the DSM? We wondered if the inclusion of something in the DSM, as a “disorder,” isn’t arbitrary. What is the gold standard, the “average” person against which all of these disorders are weighed? We pointed to the fact that many disorders have the potential to be constructive (such as ADD properly managed), and that some have been removed (homosexuality used to be classified in the DSM). How is it that we know a certain facet of human behavior is a dis-order? We also pointed to the problematic nature of diagnosis itself. Someone might exhibit the symptoms of a disorder, but yet not have that disorder. It seems that in some cases, it’s the assumption that the person has the disorder that leads to the later diagnosis–confirmation bias. Sara told the story of a man in prison exhibiting the signs of a psychopath who could not escape diagnosis.

This was a particularly rich discussion, and I’m missing some of the details. We left off with some suggestions of potential topics for next time: substance dualism, and the everlasting problem of morality and ethics, which is almost as big a problem as that there were still no snacks.