Monday, September 21, 2009

Andrew Sullivan on the Problem of Evil

It's always nice to see philosophy appear in popular culture. Andrew Sullivan makes brief mention of a good discussion of the problem of evil from Russell Blackford.

Russell Blackford argues that the paradox of suffering requires one to become an atheist. He writes that the "intellectually honest response, painful though it may be, is to stop believing in that God":

[M]ost of the supposed explanations of evil make sense only in a pre-scientific setting. They are now absurdly implausible even at face value. In particular, most of the suffering that there has been on this planet took place long before human beings even existed. An all-powerful God did not need any of this. It could have created the world in a desirable form without any of it just by thinking, "Let it be so!" That's what being all-powerful is about, if we take it seriously.

I have never found the theodicy argument against faith convincing. My own faith teaches me that suffering is part of a fallen creation that lives and dies - how could it not be? But it also teaches me that suffering in itself can be a means of letting go to God, of allowing Him to take over, of recognizing one's own mortality and limits. That to me is not some kind of crutch. It is simply the paradox of the cross.

This is amusingly nonsensical (including his misuse of the term "theodicy"), but the interesting point here is that we have a theological argument based on purely fictitious events. This is like making your anecdotal argument based on stories that aren't even true in the first place. (This formulation is based on Al Franken's discussion, from Rush Limbaugh is a Big, Fat Idiot, of Ronald Reagan and others doing this.) How can events that never happened--humanity's sin and fall from grace--justify harms to humanity that our current free choices can neither cause nor prevent?

Perhaps the snake and the Garden of Eden story is metaphorical, and that the fall is not something that happened in a mythical past, but something we are constantly experiencing as we exercise, and misuse, our free will. That might work as a justification for moral evil (evil caused by human action), but it makes no sense as a response to natural evil (evil caused by events, such as earthquakes etc. beyond the control of any human).

The appeal to faith, to belief in something even though it makes no sense--"the paradox of the cross"--is the last refuge of the incompetent.

Imagine a dialog: "Believe in me, I am God!" "If you're God, can you cure my cancer?" "No, I won't, that's the mystery of faith."

If one does not have an answer, one can always appeal to faith but such an appeal is intellectually and morally bankrupt.

I suppose the idea is that our inability to answer these questions is supposed to show not that we should doubt the existence of God, but that we are limited and imperfect beings and should put our trust in God to make decisions for us. If someone actually believed this, I'm not sure what one could say since that person would also be giving up his/her reasoning capacity. Perhaps I should convince that person that I am God? But, fortunately, no one believes this. Can one criticize Dick Cheney for sponsoring torture? Or should one put faith in God that all this is really for the best? I think the answer is obvious to everyone, but no one wants to face the consequences of this thought, so they mouth some platitude about "paradoxes" and go back to thinking of other things. This is what Socratic self-examination is all about, and why it will always be unpopular.

No comments:

Post a Comment