Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Problem of Evil Solved

Hey, if Daniel Dennett can write a book called Consciousness Explained (though it does nothing of the sort) why can't I pretend to have solved the problem of evil? The intent of this post is not, of course, to actually solve the problem once and for all, but to demonstrate that the argument is less weighty than its proponents might think.

The standard formulation of the argument goes something like this: if God is good and all-powerful then evil should not exist. If evil exists, then either God does not exist or God is not like the traditional Judaeo-Christian view of him (i.e. either not all good or not omnipotent). It is usually taken as a given that evil does in fact exist and that this is a problem for the Christian God.

I admit that the problem is difficult from both an intellectual and an emotional viewpoint. Examples of evil (or suffering, as some philosophers might prefer) are easy to call to mind. The atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, the victims of the tsunami of 2004, or the children from around the world who are abused each day are only a few of the examples one can provide. How could a loving, good, all-powerful God allow such things? It is a difficult question, but I think a few considerations significantly soften the force of the argument.

In the Christian worldview, God created the universe and then life to occupy it. Because God desired a rational companion he created humans. He created them in his image, and he created them male and female. Humans are unique among the animals, being the only ones able to think abstractly, use language, and act rationally. By granting humans agency, or free will, God was able to have a relationship with them. Now, God, or humans, can have relationships with dogs, cats, pigs, or whatever. Clearly, though, the relationship is very different than one that is between two agents. That is, between two beings able to choose among different actions, a relationship acquires meaning. The reason why your relationship with your mother, spouse, or brother is meaningful is because both parties have a choice in the matter. Having someone love you is meaningful only if they have the option to not love you. God then, was taking a risk when he created human agents. Apparently he thought it worth the risk to have the possibility of meaningful, reciprocal relationships. So then, the possibility of love entails the possibility of hate. The possibility of performing acts of love and grace towards others entails the possibility of performing acts of hatred.

One might respond that, yes, in general God has reasons for allowing free will, but what about those concentration camps, did God really have to allow that? This seems reasonable at first glance, but consider: where exactly should God draw that line? When someone wants to kill 100 people, should God step in and stop him? What about 10 people? How about just one? Killing one person is evil, just as killing a thousand is. A husband striking his wife is also evil. A child who is bullied at school can be damaged physically and emotionally. Should God step in each time a bully is about to act? How about the next time you are about to lie to your spouse about something? Or spend an extra hundred dollars on a new TV while children starve to death in another country? I suggest that if we head down this path, soon we will find ourselves unable to hate, dislike, steal, lie, or in short, do anything short of perfect acts. We would find ourselves automatons, blindly, unthinkingly acting “good.” But these acts would be meaningless, as we would not have any other choice. This is exactly what God did not want.

In the movie, The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays a character named Truman who has unwittingly become the star of a TV show. The TV show simply follows his every day life, but Truman has no idea he is being filmed. He also has no idea that his entire life, from his birth up to his present day, has been staged. Everyone he thinks he knows are just actors. The town he lives in has been created solely for the purpose of the show. Truman's life is very "nice." He has friends, a wife, a steady job. The problem? Since his whole life is an artificial construct Truman eventually begins to suspect something is up; something doesn’t feel right. His life, though encountering little direct evil or suffering, lacks meaning and Truman can feel it. A universe where God orchestrated what we are and are not allowed to do would be similar. Without the risk of evil, we cannot have the possibility of true goodness and beauty.

What about natural disasters, then? Free will may explain why humans are allowed to cause other humans suffering, but why would God allow earthquakes to kill? First, I think that the natural disaster problem of suffering is much less powerful than the original argument. When I am distraught about the evil in the world, it is not usually the hurricanes and earthquakes I am worried about. That said, it is still a challenge for a Christian to answer, as obviously free will has nothing to do with natural disasters.

As someone who studies and teaches the earth sciences, I am quite familiar with natural disasters of all kinds. Interestingly, all major natural disasters have their roots in processes that contribute to the overall habitability of planet Earth. The molten core of Earth, for example, drives plate tectonics and generates the Earth’s magnetic field. Without the magnetic field, life could not survive on Earth’s surface due to intense solar wind (charged particles from the sun). Plate tectonics, among other things, creates livable surfaces above water (continents), replenishes nutrients to the Earth’s surface (through volcanic eruptions), and helps regulate global climate. Side effects of plate tectonics (a result of the molten core) include earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. These events can pose hazards for life on Earth. But without them Earth would probably not be habitable at all. Hurricanes are essentially release valves for the global climate system, distributing heat and moisture away from the equator to the rest of the world.

But couldn’t God have designed a habitable world without all of these dangerous side effects? I don’t know. But just the fact that they do play an important role weakens the force of the argument. A completely useless catastrophic occurrence would be a more difficult problem.

So where does this leave us? I don’t think the argument succeeds in showing that the Christian God cannot co-exist with evil, as God may have good reasons for allowing evil to exist. Natural disasters can still be difficult to accept, but there is at least a good reason for them to exist as well. I’m sure these answers won’t satisfy everyone, but I like to think it’s a start. I hope to read more contemporary philosophers’ take on this problem at some point (it’s been a few years). Comments?


Anonymous said...

Two points about natural disasters:
1. Many problems in nature are caused by lack of ecological care by the human race: pollution, fires, etc. so humanity is oftentimes directly responsible.

2. In Christianity there is an angel known as Satan. He has plenty of hate against the human race for being "created in the image of God" and because of a certain human called Jesus. He also has free will and the same options to act as we humans do and understands a thing or two about earth science. He likes to use his knowledge to make life as miserable as he can hoping people will curse God for it (read the book of Job).

Unknown said...

It's true that humans cause problems in nature, but I wouldn't normally classify them as natural disasters (i.e. usually there is little loss of life due to pollution or fires). Plus if humans caused them they are back under the free will category.

I agree that it's possible that powers of darkness are involved in causing people suffering, but it seems epistemically problematic. Given the difficulty in being able to know whether or not this has happened, I prefer to explore other explanations.

Anonymous said...

On the problem of natural disasters, there is another possible solution. If one adopts a Biblical history coupled with Flood geology, plate tectonics may have started at the Flood, and thus there would have been no plate tectonics before the Flood, and no earthquakes, tsunamis, or volcanoes. In addition, the absence of rain would have precluded tornadoes and hurricanes, and a more dependable water supply would have precluded floods and droughts. Finally, in Eden the animals were reportedly herbivores, thus eliminating attacks by wild animals for food. Thus it could be that all "natural" disasters were actually the result of human sin as well.

Of course, to make this argument, one must propose a short age for life on earth, and for the geologic column. That means that one must tackle the evidence for the long age of the geologic column, specifically radiometric dating. But especially in the case of carbon-14 dating,
can be done.