Sunday, February 27, 2011

Theodicy and the Epicurean Paradox

The "Epicurean Paradox" is expressed in these words:
"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?"

I posted the following last summer to an online message board in which another poster asked if anyone had a response to this argument:
I doubt that there could be one that is compelling.

Certainly, we should stipulate that if there were a God, by which we mean a Being of Infinite Wisdom (or at least much smarter than us) and given that we can't know the reasons for everything, it would be logically possible for God to commit acts or allow them that looked monstrous to us but that turned out, unknown to us, to be justified.

If I were walking down the street with small children and saw someone who, unknown to to the children, had a partly concealed weapon, and if I could know the person was about to assault us with deadly force, and if I attacked the other person instead and killed him, the children might well think they had witnessed an unprovoked and monstrous attack on an innocent bystander, but they would be mistaken.

Having said all that—which I suppose must be the best one can say for such an argument—it remains true that the gap between the supposedly benevolent and omnipotent God and the world we see, is simply too great for us to rest an attribution of justice and power to Him on anything but blind faith.

Someone has mentioned C.S. Lewis, whom I respect as an able reasoner on some questions, and Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher whom, as I understand, many professional philosophers take very seriously indeed, including some who are atheists and agnostics. I feel that I owe it to myself to read Plantinga at some point, though I haven't done so yet.

Plantinga and Lewis argue along the lines of saying that the world we have may be the best that any power could have created, if we were to have anything but a fantasy world that changed at any moment. Lewis develops this at some length in his The Problem of Pain. The same firmness that makes wood suitable for building a house, he says, also means I can use it as a club to bludgeon my neighbor. If God took it upon himself to suddenly make the wood harmless if used for assault, He may as well go the whole way and make my mind so that it could not frame such an intention to begin with, but then, we would not be human.

All that is very well, as far as it goes, but it strikes me as odd, for people so concerned to stress human free will as a constraint on God (not to mention that invoking human free will still doesn't answer the issue of why there are earthquakes, floods, and plagues), that it never seems to occur to them to wonder why God would not have offered everyone the courtesy of the ultimate in "free will"—asking them if they cared to be incarnated into such a world in the first place.

It is not impossible to imagine a Deity creating conscious but disembodied "souls" and making a speech to them something like the following:

"I will give you a very basic choice. You may remain as you are and know me through mental pleasures, contemplating my splendor and majesty through the ages, unchanged from what you are at this moment.

"Or you may elect to be placed in a world where you may experience hunger, pain, disease, or worse. There are too many variables even for me to make it the undifferentiatedly happy place I might wish. You may, it is true, be born with good genes, loving parents, in a good climate, in a comfortable household; you may find a loving mate, pursue a worthy career, beget loving children who are a credit to you, and die, after a long lifetime of illustrious achievement, mourned by all who know you.

"You may, on the other hand, be born into a place called Darfur, see your father cut down by outlaw militia, see your mother savagely used by the same people, watch your little brother die of starvation, and be sold into slavery.

"You may opt for one or the other, but if you choose the physical life, once you're in, you're in. There is no panic button to push that lets you out, and whatever hideous tortures, mental or physical, you may happen to suffer, you will do so knowing that you unfortunately happened to draw the short straw in a world that simply couldn't be made pleasant for everyone.

"Now choose."

Now if a Deity offered such a choice, however stern and extreme we might think it was, everyone would at least know what they were dealing with.

But the scenario I've just described doesn't really seem to appear in many forms of religious belief. Instead, we seem to be meant to assume that we had no choice but to be born into this world, but on the other hand, God can't interfere with our free will! Say again?

Lewis, to his credit, says in one of his books, that if God's justice is so unlike any notion we have of right and wrong that we can scarcely comprehend it, that the whole idea may as well be meaningless, and I think he has hit on the exact problem. Let's return for a moment to the pre-birth scenario and suppose that instead of offering the unborn Darfurian child a choice, God simply says:

"You will be born into starvation, conflict, disease, and misery, live a short life of pain, without dignity or freedom, and finally see your life snuffed out in a miserable and humiliating death. And you have no choice but to be born and go through this.

"Still, on the other side of this miserable interlude is an eternity of dwelling in my presence, in everlasting bliss, and even though your puny mind cannot understand why, the bliss would not have been possible without the intervening horror. I in my infinite wisdom know this, even though you never can or will."

Very well. Could any of us, if we had the power, say this in good conscience to any being? Even one?

The question answers itself. Logically, yes, everything I just said above could be supposed to be true, but the sheer impossibility of knowing it is true, reduces us as much to blind faith as we would be similarly reduced if some maniac locked us in his basement for years and abused us but assured us that it was all for the best. If the kind of faith required here is really necessary to believe in a good and powerful God, it robs us of our humanity as much as the putative loss of free will that occasions Lewis's and Plantinga's caveats about automatons.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

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