Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Second Problem of Evil (Under Tasso's Oak)

The Atheist Way is about living a robust, normal life uncluttered by religion. And for most people, musing on issues of philosophy isn't a big feature of normal life. So it's appropriate that most of the posts here are about life, not philosophy.

Yet for a few, musing on the big, abstract ideas is part of normal life, and bumping into a new idea is one of the most exciting things that can happen. Recently that happened to me while reading a book of essays on philosophy (Philosophers Without Gods, Louise M. Antony, Ed.) and I want to share those ideas here. Maybe a few others will share my excitement.

Two ideas in these essays were new to me. One is positive, a simple, secular basis for a moral system. I will cover that another day (I need some more time to digest it).

The other is a new perspective on the old Problem of Evil which makes it an even stronger argument against a god's existence.

The Old Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil is an old argument against the existence of god. It can be summarized this way: if the world is created and maintained by an omnipotent and morally-perfect god, how come it contains pointless suffering? Because there is so much suffering of animals as well as people, and so many human miseries that cannot possibly be linked to human will, it becomes easy to conclude either that god is not omnipotent; or that god is not morally perfect (at best morally indifferent, if not outright malevolent); or more simply that there is no god.

The Problem of Evil has been explored in exhaustive detail by many philosophers. (For an overview of its many facets see the Wikipedia article . For a more technical review see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

An argument that aims to reconcile the existence of suffering with a benevolent god is called a theodicy (from the greek words for justify and god). There are several approaches to theodicy, and people who are emotionally committed to the idea of a benevolent God can usually find one that satisfies them. Those of us without such a priori commitments usually find theodicies contorted and unconvincing.

A Different Face of Evil

My understanding of this old chestnut was broken open by the essay "Divine Evil" by the late David Lewis.

Forget the natural suffering caused by cancers, or by tsunamis, says Lewis. Forget the millions of years of painful deaths of innocent animals. All of that suffering was merely permitted by god, but it is only a drop of blood in an endless ocean of pain that is not merely permitted, but intentionally commanded by god. And this second ocean of suffering cannot be justified by any traditional theodicy.

What is Lewis talking about? He is pointing to the promises of eternal damnation that are an undeniable part of orthodox Christian (and, I understand, Islamic) belief. The key elements of damnation are that it is (a) a form of suffering, and (b) eternal, which is to say, infinite in extent.

The suffering of all sentient beings that have lived since the beginning of the Earth -- all the animals that have died in pain in a predator's jaws or a forest fire, all the people who have suffered disease or flood or landslide -- no matter what kind of arithmetic you use to calculate suffering, it sums to a finite value.

If even a single sentient being is made to suffer for an infinite time, the total suffering is infinite and has to be greater than any finite value. In fact, Christianity and Islam both insist that not one, but vast numbers of people will be condemned in this way. This is not the suffering that is merely permitted as an incidental part of creation — the suffering that conventional theodicies try to justify. It is suffering that is explicitly commanded, created, supervised by what is claimed to be a benevolent god.

Some modern Christians attempt to soft-pedal damnation, but it is not easy to find a kinder, gentler reading for texts like Matthew 25:41ff: Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire... and these shall go away into everlasting punishment... and that is only one of several grim promises of damnation in the New Testament.

Lewis argues at length that an infinite ("everlasting") punishment can never be a just penalty for a finite sin. But the justice of damnation is not the central issue. The issue is that (religious dogma insists that) god is determined to intentionally create an infinite quantity of suffering in the future that will utterly eclipse the finite sum of all previous suffering. None of the arguments that try to justify finite suffering can apply. Either this god is not benevolent, or it does not exist.

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