Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Problems Of Theodicy Revisited ('How Can A Good God Permit Evil?')

From time to time in this blog I've examined religious claims, as well as their underpinnings. In this post I want to examine typical Christian claims from the viewpoint of theodicy – which is the argument that the nature of evil in the world leaves open the nature of a hypothetical God in terms of the cosmos as it is. Note that in some cases atheists have argued that theodicy and the encounter of evil in the world (natural or human) is so formidable that it excludes the existence of a deity

I don’t go that far and fully explain why in my 2013 book, Beyond Atheism- Beyond God.. For now I will only say that it's feasible to "square the circle" regarding God - treated as a hypothetical. Hence,  the attributes of  such a hypothetical God and apparent evil  are fully reconcilable - so long as one loosens the conditions for the divine attributes.

First, let’s examine the naturalist-atheist’s premise, which can basically be summed up thusly:

If pervasive evil (natural or human) exists in the world and:

is allowed to continue unabated despite a claim for an “infinite  and omnipotent God” then either:

a) God is powerless to stop it, in which case God is not omnipotent or infinite, or

b) God chooses not to stop or limit it, in which case God is a sadist or evil himself

Some Christians in order to counter one or both points have tried to interject “free will” but this doesn’t work for the following reason: if one person’s (e.g. victim’s will) is not operative, then it is only a one-sided will, so what was done to help the person of passive will or incapacity of will?

For example, several years ago a report emerged of a ninety year old invalid woman in a nursing home raped by one of its attendants. The woman was cerebrally and physically incapacitated so had NO free will. She was, in essence, preyed upon by a person whose job was to assist her. This is human evil in its most malignant form.

Now, a truly beneficent deity would not allow this to occur, but would act (according to Kai Neilsson, ‘Ethics Without God’) at least to the minimal standard of a decent human parent. Thus, if a human parent were to observe (e.g. using a remote monitor) a baby sitter about to assault his or her baby, he or she would intervene forthwith – not wait for the baby to “make up its mind” whether it wanted to be assaulted or not! In like manner, a true beneficent or just deity would intervene to prevent the elderly woman’s rape in a nursing home. Perhaps by causing the perpetrator to stumble and break a leg, or whatever. Anything but inaction!

Yet, in the world as it is, all we see is inaction when even the most vulnerable are predated.

The core problem of the apparent limitations of divine power (or attributes) was first enunciated by the Greek Materialist, Epicurus:

“God either wishes to take away evil and is unable, or He is able and unwilling, or He is neither able nor willing, or He is both willing and able.”

Mathematician John Paulos draws the key logical inferences (‘Irreligion’, p. 125)

“In the first three cases He is not very God-like, which prompts you to wonder about the prevalence and persistence of evil. Or to make the situation even more concrete: imagine a serial child killer with his thirtieth victim tied before him. Prayers for the child are offered by many. If God is either unable or unwilling to stop the killer than what good is He? It seems the usual response is we don’t understand His ways, but if this is so why introduce Him in the first place?

Indeed. Because if God refuses to act in the case of an innocent and on her behalf, or is incapable of action – then for all practical purposes He does not exist. It is therefore a useless exercise to introduce a deity at all. One could as well toughen his mind, admit there's nothing out there, and we're all on our own in a totally purposeless cosmos devoid of remorse or empathy for us. In fact, one major Torino 10 asteroid could obliterate us one time and nobody would be the wiser.

Now, as seemingly sealed as this case of human evil, I'm not going to prematurely foreclose its import for Christian-oriented theodicy just yet. The reason is that there is a “God Theory” which can explain it. This was put forward by Bernard Haisch in his book by the same name.  For now I only note that the reason we behold inaction is because the divinity itself isn't fully knowledgeable, aware, or complete.   This is, of course, the basis of the so-called "Socinian heresy", i.e. that God is not perfect or complete but must evolve toward such a state. (First proposed by Socinus).

Along the same lines, the cosmos and world are still in a process of evolution, and that de facto incomplete process allows for what we call “evil” as well as human (as well as divine) misjudgments and mistakes. I believe it was the philosopher N.M Wildiers who first observed:

Evil is part and parcel of a world in evolution, an incomplete world.”

Meaning that in an imperfect world governed by evolution, we must expect evil as a kind of natural concomitant. "Evil" is the downside of a fundamental polarity which permeates all finite manifestation in the extant cosmos. We must therefore not expect divine intervention because God himself is “working things out”  (Socinus' take again!) amidst a sea of polarities in the relative domain of physical reality. Haisch argues this is the only way it can be, since the "infinite" can't simply manifest in the limited cosmos as the infinite. The only choice is to become finite then manifest at the dunned down level this dictates, i.e. in its creations. Note, this is not the same as the Socinian heresy. But in this frame let’s now examine the problem of natural evil.

As an example consider the 2010 massive earthquake that struck Kumming, China, killing hundreds. Then, the same year, we noted a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti killing over 200,000. Meanwhile, in December, 2004, a tsunami struck Indonesia and over 220,000 were killed. What gives?

For the atheist or naturalist, nothing "gives", so no rationalizations need be offered.  The brutal fact is that this is the planet we inhabit, one inherently composed of tectonic plates and hence unstable. Hence, these are simply natural events for a planet with a dynamic core,  unstable crust. There is no “evil” inherent in any of the earthquakes since humans – like it or not- populate a disruptive planet. There are, in fact, about 12-15 earthquakes per year over magnitude 7.0 all over the Earth. We don’t hear about most of them because they occur in inaccessible, far off regions like Siberia or Mongolia or in the sea. We do hear about them when they manifest in populated land centers, but this doesn’t imply more are occurring or “the end of the world is nigh” or any such nonsense.

So, why does a problem of natural “evil” enter? It enters only for the theist, and specifically one type of theist who predicates his world view on a supposed benevolent “Creator” or “designer”. Because at root, if humans inhabit a world subject to monster storms, hurricanes, tidal waves and earthquakes…it is the fault of the Creator for designing such a world in the first place when He knew he’d put humans at risk. 

Religionists go round and round in circles trying to avoid this unsavory conclusion, but there it is! If you're going to posit that a Designer (or omnipotent) deity made it all, then logic informs that if we inhabit a world with large defects (including diseases like COVID-19) so it is that entity’s fault when natural tragedies occur! After all, if  truly omnipotent then why couldn’t he or it create a planet without these defects which would have been known ahead of time (via the attribute of "omniscience") to kill his ‘children’ by the millions each year? If, as some religionists argue, it was to "teach us" something, then what exactly was it? Did it require mass death to get the lesson over?

But stand back! If the Haisch theory is correct, then this is expected because an incomplete deity is not any kind of proper “designer” (as Haisch himself concedes). Thus, the flawed "pinball machine" world (and cosmos) we inhabit is solely the product of a part-time, incompletely informed divinity- inherently limited in its power and wisdom because it must operate via finite proxy  (e.g. incomplete) beings. The brains of such beings cannot channel the infinite in entirety, but only minuscule fragments or quantums of it. In other words, using the framework in which Haisch would put it: “This is the best that a manifest divinity could do having to operate in a physical, relative domain in which Its absolute infinity couldn’t be manifest all at once. "

To summarize then, this is where we are so far led in considering the problems of theodicy:

The evils (natural and human) in the world, lead us to conclude that either the world (and cosmos by extension) is not the product of a “designer” - or any deity at all.  OR: the world and cosmos is the product of a putative, supra-physical agent that is likely incomplete and which actions are constrained by being manifest in an incomplete, evolving universe.

In the latter case, we’d more likely side with Leibniz, who opined that "natural disasters aren’t the result if any divine punishment for sin” but simply the foreseen (or better, foreseeable) consequences of a regulated and overall consistent system of natural laws.

Thus , ALL the natural disasters to which I earlier referred were either completely or partially predictable – even by current methods of science. The 2004 tsunami would've been predictable with 10 or more hours to spare had tsunami warning bouys been present in and around the Indian Ocean (though the people in the immediate vicinity of Bande Aceh may still have not had enough time to prepare). The Haiti earthquake did have a warning, but it was too short, and most people (lacking radios, TVs) didn’t hear it.

The laws that unleash tsunamis and earthquakes are themselves well known, and have to do with subduction processes and pressures, shear stresses that accumulate over time, say between tectonic plates. The two plates (North American and Caribbean) that caused the 40' uplift displacement in Haiti were known to be en route to that for over two centuries, for example.

One commentator in the Barbados press  some years ago, while referencing Leibniz, had this to say:

One unsettling consequence of Leibniz’s view is that God’s plans and purposes aren’t as human-centered as we might have believed. It is oddly wonderful to think the whole cosmos, even natural disasters, revolves around us – but that belief may already be hard enough to sustain given what we already know about the history and size of the universe”.

Indeed, and I might add it's the epitome of human arrogance and conceit to believe such – given a cosmos 66 billion light years in diameter and teeming with trillions of galaxies each containing over a 100 billion stars each. Only a totally ignorant or self-worshiping species could entertain such an incredibly egomaniacal fantasy!

So to believe any natural disaster or cosmic event is purely for human purposes and interpretations is to commit a ghastly mental misfire so vast that it boggles the imagination. It rivals that of the egomaniac ant (in one ancient Bajan fable). According to that fable, an ant decided one today to pick up a small piece of straw in its mandibles and drive all humans from its land! Before it could move two inches, it was squashed by a human foot. Not intentionally- but merely because the ant was in the wrong place at the wrong time!

The whole history of the advance of modern science, especially astronomy, also provides a cautionary tale to anthropocentrism in showing how humanity has been repeatedly driven out of its solipsistic roosting perches: from Copernicus’ revelation of the heliocentric theory of the solar system (showing the Sun, not the Earth was the center of the solar system), to the discovery that the solar system is not at the center of the Milky Way galaxy – but two thirds to the edge. And then on to the discovery that the Milky Way itself is not the center of the cosmos – but rather that all galaxies (in clusters) are moving away from each other in the expansion – with no single geometric center.

Finally, in 1997-98, the discovery that the matter of which we are composed - and to which I referred above- isn’t even special.  It is only about 7% of the total, the other 93% is dark energy and dark matter! This elicits the question: What manner of divinity would invest so much into creating a universe 93 percent dark energy, dark matter? Oh, and with no 'order' that can be assessed, or observed? 

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