Friday 1 May 2009

Questioning the Problem of Evil (2009)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXVII No.1

Why is it a problem?

By Ben Gibran

What about natural evils? Some regard these as acts of God which ultimately 'work for the good'. Others prefer to draw a yet-to-be-discovered causal link from human wickedness, that disrupted (and continuously disrupts?) a once harmonious relationship between Man and Nature. 

The classic Problem of Evil (henceforth referred to as 'the Problem') is one of the oldest and most persistent puzzles in philosophy. In its various formulations, the Problem posits an apparent contradiction between the existence of evil in the world and the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and morally perfect Creator (henceforth called 'God'). The conventional proposed solutions to the Problem (such as appeals to free will, limitations on human knowledge, or 'best of all possible worlds' arguments) have been mired in inconclusive debates. This article aims to foreground some of the key assumptions that render the Problem 'problematic'; and signpost a few 'pseudo-problems' along the way.

Some of these pseudo-problems arise from the conflation of several senses of 'evil'. The word 'evil' is used to refer to intentions, actions, practical consequences, acts of nature, pain and suffering. Not all of these 'evils' give rise to the Problem.

Philosophers traditionally divide evils into 'natural evils' (what insurers refer to as 'acts of Nature', such as diseases and earthquakes) and 'moral evils' ('acts of Man', for instance murder or theft). 'Moral evils' may be sub-divided into evil intentions and evil actions. The mere existence of creatures with evil intentions does not result in the Problem. Their evil intentions only give rise to the Problem if successfully acted on, causing evil outcomes (such as actual harm or injustice).

Distinguishing between intentions and outcomes allows for the argument that God redirects our attempts to act on our evil intentions, so that they ultimately 'work for the good' as viewed from a more holistic perspective (perhaps from the future). In such a scenario we would be culpable for our evil intentions; but on the assumption that we have free will, it may be argued that God is not the 'author of [moral] evil'. God brings about good, whether we intend to act badly or not. He does not allow our evil intentions to thwart his perfect plan. This may be called the 'redirection' argument, though it may have other names in the literature. The redirection argument raises a number of thorny questions (not least concerning the nature of free will, the origin of evil, and the role of the former in delimiting God's culpability for the latter), but has at least one advantage over the 'best of all possible worlds' argument (which at its simplest, argues that this is the best of all possible worlds, intentions included).

In allowing for the existence of evil intentions, the redirection argument leaves room for the possibility of sin (defined as rebellion against God, and thereby against our own best interest), which many regard as an undeniable moral reality.

Some may object that the redirection argument does not allow for real sinning, since someone who believes the argument would also believe that he can never really do anything bad (and may therefore 'do evil so good may result'). In response, one may appeal to the moral difference between doing evil in the belief that God will redirect it to the good, and just doing the good (to the best of our knowledge) that God commands. The former appears to be an evil act regardless of its consequences. A child who deliberately breaks his toys in the knowledge that daddy will buy more is still a bad child, even if dad has bottomless pockets. Another objection to the redirection argument is that it fails to address the 'problem of pain'.

Evils may be divided into those that are belief-dependent and those that are not. Pain is a belief-independent evil, because the belief that pain exists is not premised on other contingent beliefs. The experience of pain is sufficient to confirm that pain exists, but the experience of belief-dependent evils such as injustice are mediated through a set of contingent beliefs about the world. According to the redirection argument, from a more holistic perspective we may not see any belief-dependent evils in human history (only evil intentions that were never really fulfilled). However, we would still see pain, because no amount of new information can negate the fact that pain existed.

The standard response to the 'problem of pain' is that once we get the right perspective, we will see the pain as meaningful and therefore no longer as 'suffering' (though we may catch glimpses of 'meaningful pain' in our present experience, for example in a mother's decision to have a 'natural' childbirth, it seems fair to say that no analogy can do justice to the mystery of how the totality of human pain may be rendered 'meaningful'). The sentiment that such a response seems trite or otherwise unsatisfying may be put down to psychological factors (our natural immediate response to grief or pain), rather than philosophical ones.

There are times when we want to say that some event is just absolutely evil, in the sense that it stands for all eternity as a blot on human history. Our sense that grave injustice has been done seems to carry the connotation that real damage has occurred, which cannot be easily undone. Would the redirection argument not change what we mean by 'evil', removing the sense of irreparable harm that underlies the seriousness of evil? We want to say that no amount of punishment for the wrongdoers or compensation for the wronged could nullify real evils. Otherwise, evil would just be a debit on the moral balance sheet, and may be cancelled out with sufficient credit in the form of good works or penance (if we had a surplus of credit, are we free to do evil to balance it out?). On the other hand, how could God allow irremediable evils in the first place?

Proponents of the redirection argument might reply that our intuitions about the irreparability of evil are correct, but they apply to evil intentions rather than their consequences. An evil intention can never be erased from human history, it can never be transformed into a good intention by any amount of ingenuity or power. It is at least arguable that the existence of evil intentions in God's creatures cannot be held against God, if He gave them free will to begin with and redirected their bad intentions into good outcomes.

What about natural evils? Some regard these as acts of God which ultimately 'work for the good'. Others prefer to draw a yet-to-be-discovered causal link from human wickedness, that disrupted (and continuously disrupts?) a once harmonious relationship between Man and Nature. The latter view has the advantage of preserving the moral duty to mitigate natural evils such as disease and famine. If such evils were part of God's perfect plan, we would be hard-pressed to justify the claim that they are indeed 'evils'. But if God redirects evils to the good anyway, why bother to fight evils? In reply, proponents of the redirection argument might appeal to the aforementioned moral difference between doing evil (in this case, by omission) in the belief that God will redirect it to the good, and just doing the good that God commands.

Oddly enough, there is little literature (at least in Western Philosophy) on the possibility that self-delusion plays a part in our perception of the world as a bleak place. Our brains filter all perceptual data through conceptual schemes that are heavily value-laden, skewing our perception of reality to suit arbitrary priorities (in a famous psychology experiment, subjects didn't see a man in a bear suit walking through a basketball game, because they were asked to focus on keeping score. In another experiment, where subjects were shown a picture of a white man holding a knife in front of a black man, many recalled the black man holding the knife).

If. as the evidence suggests, human beings are capable of self-delusion on a massive scale, and as some 'theologicians' propose, the human race is rebelling against God, would our perception of reality not be correspondingly distorted? If we don't want to believe in God, would it not suit us to live in a world that appears to show that He doesn't exist? If the world is full of injustice and suffering, would that not be the perfect excuse for not believing in an omnipotent, omniscient, morally perfect and above all, loving Creator?

One could go a step further (some might say, off the edge!) and ask, is our subjective experience of pain real, in the sense of being caused by external stimuli? In another psychology experiment, subjects who allowed themselves to be hypnotised into believing they were in pain showed the same brain activity as people in real pain. Are we really living in a bad and miserable world, or do we hate God so much that we would rather believe that we live in a bad and miserable world, so we can have the best possible excuse not to believe in Him?

Some may object that we wouldn't be able to delude ourselves into believing we were in pain if we couldn't draw on the real experience of pain (can someone who has never smelled coffee imagine the aroma of coffee?). If hating another human being causes us 'psychic pain', would hatred for God cause a higher order and magnitude of suffering in the haters? If so, could we be drawing on the psychic pain of our hatred for God, and transferring the cause to the external world? In other words, could we be living in Heaven right now, if we didn't prefer to believe we're in Hell? Perhaps C. S. Lewis was understating it when he wrote that the gates of Hell are locked from the inside. If Hell didn't exist, would we have to invent it?

About the author:

Ben Gibran is the editor of 'Ordinary Language Philosophy, an Internet resource on the 'Ordinary Language', 'Linguistic' or 'Oxford' School of philosophy. 

Address for correspondence:

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