Flipping Theodicy Sans Pangloss

Jim Anderson considers my turning the Theodicy question around. He suggests that this, in essence, means this is the “best of all possible worlds.” Now I suppose that could be a charge put to an omnipotent Good God, that is if this is not a Panglossian utopia … why not? But my claim in flipping theodicy was weaker than that. Let me try to isolate more abstractly (or succinctly) the question I had posed.

  1. God wishes the love of his creatures. Love cannot be coerced his creatures must be free willed.
  2. Following Kass’ arguments in The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis from Genesis 1, creation is (and should therefore be) reasonable, that its workings comprehensible to rational creatures.

So, we have a rationally understandable universe in which creatures within it can do evil things if they choose. The ‘trap’ here for your omnipotent God wanting to prevent evil is the brute force approach is unworkable. That is if somehow an evil person, say SW (Snidely Whiplash), is prevented by deus ex machina or Rube Goldbergian coincidence every time he attempts acts of gratuitous violence they fail that this will make it impossible for a rational person to reject God.

Mr Anderson brings 6 points to bear.

  1. His first point is one of imagination. He cannot imagine a rational universe with free willed actors without evil. He asks if his failure of imagination “imagine a world you can’t imagine” is a problem.
  2. A “rigorously logical attempt will be confounded by the Butterfly Effect” … is an objection I don’t understand.
  3. Point three (that there might be too much gratuitous evil in the world) argues that this is likely not the “best of all possible words”, a point I am not defending.
  4. Point four reflects on point 3.
  5. His fifth point is incomplete, considering that an “inversion of the Ontological Argument” might be necessary when considering the inversion of the Theodicy problem.
  6. Is a self-directed ad hominem. That is, the evil in the world reflects really really poorly on us men and if it is indeed necessary it is callous to think that men have been, perhaps, constructed so that we were more naturally nice fellows.

This last point offers perhaps a clue as to where we might find a better universe, that is one populated by men less inclined to do evil?

The comments in his post trend toward mathematical thinking and I’ll offer one mathematical comparison. A school of mathematics is not happy with the method of proof by contradiction. A proof by contradiction demonstrates a fact not by construction but by demonstrating that a thing is impossible without really pointing to exactly why, i.e., by demonstrating that implications of a thing lead to a contradiction.

This “turnaround” of theodicy is perhaps similar, in that it suggests that assuming the opposite that is that a better universe is possible leads to a problem, that is our constructions of better universes have inherent contradictions, i.e., SW is magically ineffective.

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32 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    Let’s make the problem a bit simplier in scale. Imagine you are watching 3 or 4 little kids. You give each of them an ice cream cone with one scoop. One kid is a mean bully and he knocks the scoop off the cone of the weakest kid. You have plenty of ice cream so you give the poor kid another scoop.

    Not that in the above ‘system’ the mean kid retains his freedom to do evil yet the ‘society’ permits no evil. The lost scoop is restored to the victim and, at least in terms of ice cream consumption, this world looks a lot more free from evil than the one we live in.

    This, then, gives a resolution for God’s Theodicy issue. People can choose to do evil but evil doesn’t get to be done. However we are left with the fact that we don’t see the victims of evil being instantly compensated and made whole again.

    But then returning to the little kids, since the bully likes knocking the ice cream on the floor you may opt to give the victim the extra scoop on the downlow. While the bully thinks he has denied the weak kid his ice cream, he has really been played. Moving out to the real universe, then, it seems theodicy can be resolved if in some manner God corrects the balances, making the victims of evil whole again so that on net they are not worse off. The workings of this, though, may simply be invisible to us as it is to the little kids in the above.

  2. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    And if the bully/mean kid commits murder? Does that murder fail? or does it get rectified eschatologically?

    How do you rectify the rape and murder of a 8 y/o kid?

  3. Jim Anderson says:

    My tossed-off blog post needs some expansion and refinement, it seems. Spring Break is coming, so that might actually happen soon.

    I wonder if the argument, as you’ve made it, overstates the rationality of human belief and behavior. Imagine a world in which everything is the same, except that homicide is impossible. In other words, people die of natural causes or of their own volition or foolishness, but people can’t kill other people. Would humans be any less rapacious, grasping, and cruel? With one kind of evil reduced, would another, like torture, rise to take its place?

  4. Boonton says:

    And if the bully/mean kid commits murder? Does that murder fail? or does it get rectified eschatologically?

    My example of the kids is a scaled down version of playing God. Clearly you can address the kid who ruins another kids ice cream. You can’t address a rape or murder.

    Speaking of which, the headline in the local paper Thursday was about a 15 year old girl who took her 7 year old sister with her to a ‘party’. The ‘party’ was really a group of men who paid the 15 year old to sexually assalt and rape the 7 year old girl. The 15 yr old is now arrested and police are trying to arrest the men who attended the ‘party’.

    But to answer your question yes in order for the Theodicy problem to be resolved God does have to rectify all of this. It doesn’t necessarily mean like is replaced with like….I’m not saying the 6 million Jews killed by Hitler wake up in some alternative Germany without the Nazi Party and get a lifetime there….I’m saying that the books have to be brought into balance. Then you’ve resolved your Theodicy problem without voiding free will.

    In other words, people die of natural causes or of their own volition or foolishness, but people can’t kill other people. Would humans be any less rapacious, grasping, and cruel? With one kind of evil reduced, would another, like torture, rise to take its place?

    Mark asked about a hypothetical world where God prohibits people from killing others. How about a slightly different possible world. Imagine a world where you can still do as you please but with full knowledge of the consequences. How much evil do we do to each other is done under total delusion and ignorance of the real harm we do to ourselves and others? Suppose God simply granted people the free will to do evil if they choose but set the world up in such a way that ignorance of the consequences was not possible, I suspect such a world might have some evil in it but much less than ours.

  5. What about “acts of God?” If God is good and omnipotent, why tsunamis that kill hundreds of thousands of people? Why horrific birth defects that provide short lives of miserable agony? Surely he could prevent them from happening in such a way that nobody would even realize he did it.

  6. Boonton says:

    JA,

    That question reminds me of an episode of House where they had to amputate a little girl’s arms and legs. The question was asked what type of quality of life she would have, House answered “that’s the thing about life, it has qualities”….

    Let’s just say we are all sitting ’round the Barado and some opportunities to have some life on earth open up. I think we’d probably take them even knowing that the life might be, say, 30 years and then death in an earthquake or whatnot. So while I think natural diasters are a valid question theodicy’s major issue is God permitting evil as a conscious decision his sentient creatures. If that aspect cannot be resolved then the objection to God stands pretty strong even before we move on to the fact that life can sometimes suck pretty bad even without anyone doing anything evil.

  7. No Boonton, I disagree. I think the argument that the existence of human evil is an inevitable consequence of free will is stronger (although not strong) than any argument for nature’s “evil.” Tsunamis are a much more effective disproof than serial killers to me.

  8. Boonton says:

    I suppose you could use the same template I developed with the kids and ice cream cones. If a strong breeze blew the scoop off the poor kids cone and it fell on the ground you could again make things right by giving him another scoop so even nature could ‘choose’ to be evil yet the harm is rectified.

    Where I’m uncertain is the property right you seem to put on existence….. Again let’s just say before our lives on earth we were all sitting around some type of cosmic waiting room like extras in a film hoping to get a bigger part. Some of us will and some won’t. Is that really an evil? I’m not sure.

  9. Boonton says:

    Let me pull in a more traditional source here, the Bagavad Gita. In it, a warrior confronts doubts about going into battle against people he grew up admiring. God (in the form of Kirshna) chides him that his grief is misplaced. Everyone has always existed and always will exist. From that perspective no one gets a long life and no one gets a short life. We all get an infinite existence divided into many, many chapters. Some chapters will be short and others will be longer.

    Rejecting the Hindu idea of reincarnation doesn’t really alter it that much IMO. From a more traditional Christian POV we basically get an infinite life with only a little ‘forward’ chapter of our time on earth. Whether that ‘forward’ is one page long or eighty doesn’t really matter when the whole book is millions and millions of pages long.

  10. Mark says:

    JA,

    What about “acts of God?” If God is good and omnipotent, why tsunamis that kill hundreds of thousands of people? Why horrific birth defects that provide short lives of miserable agony? Surely he could prevent them from happening in such a way that nobody would even realize he did it.

    I think you’re moving toward a nerf-world, in which nothing goes wrong and no harm can be done. Natural disasters hurt nobody. Is that however a rationally constructed universe? How does its physics work for example? Can one have real normative moral resolve and resolution in a happy happy cartoon universe?

    Does a natural disaster which only kills the wicked make sense to you?

  11. Surely there’s a middle ground between “hurt nobody” and “kills hundreds of thousands.”

    Still, the God you worship allegedly killed the overwhelming majority of the human race in a flood *on purpose* so it’s kind of a silly discussion anyway, innit? If YHWH is evil, and I think a reading of the OT makes that obvious, there’s no issue with theodicy.

  12. Mark says:

    JA,
    I see, natural disasters have to be just scary and kill a few in your hypothetical semi-nerfed universe.

    Still, the God you worship allegedly killed the overwhelming majority of the human race in a flood *on purpose* so it’s kind of a silly discussion anyway, innit?

    And here we have for exhibit A, the literal hermeneutic remains the preferred hermenuetical method for atheists.

  13. LOL ok, so let’s hear the “nonliteral hermeneutic” for the Flood story.

  14. Mark says:

    JA,
    Seriously?

    Early Christian artists depicted Noah standing in a small box on the waves, symbolizing God saving the church as it persevered through turmoil, and St. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430), in City of God, demonstrated that the dimensions of the Ark corresponded to the dimensions of the human body, which is the body of Christ, which is the Church.[1] St. Jerome (c. 347 – 420) called the raven, which was sent forth and did not return, the “foul bird of wickedness” expelled by baptism;[16] more enduringly, the dove and olive branch came to symbolize the Holy Spirit and the hope of salvation and, eventually, peace.

    Spiritual. Typological. Poetic metaphor?

    St. Gregory of Nyssa re-interpreted the Life of Moses as spiritual allegory, yet the flood. That on the other hand to be strictly a literal flood, no other way around it.

  15. Boonton says:

    I think you’re moving toward a nerf-world, in which nothing goes wrong and no harm can be done. Natural disasters hurt nobody. Is that however a rationally constructed universe? How does its physics work for example? Can one have real normative moral resolve and resolution in a happy happy cartoon universe?

    Isn’t this what heaven is supposed to be like? But according to legend Lucifer was nonetheless able to lead a revolt of angels against God and likewise suffered real results from that decision.

    JA
    Still, the God you worship allegedly killed the overwhelming majority of the human race in a flood *on purpose* so it’s kind of a silly discussion anyway, innit? If YHWH is evil, and I think a reading of the OT makes that obvious, there’s no issue with theodicy.

    But maybe it only seems horrible because you can only see one side of it, the side here in this life. Again if you don’t see me slip the kid an extra scoop of ice cream to make up for the one the bully knocked off, you may think my classroom is a harsh place full of injustices.

    Still, the God you worship allegedly killed the overwhelming majority of the human race in a flood *on purpose* so it’s kind of a silly discussion anyway, innit?

    Overwhelming majority? Try 100%. Last time I checked the mortality rate on human life was 100%. We are all exactly equal in the words of The Green Mile that “we all owe one death”.

  16. So “nonliteral hermeneutic” means make up whatever you want the story to be about and say that’s what the story means? And that the plain meaning, the part where God killed every man, woman, and child, on purpose, except for one family, is *irrelevant*?

  17. Boonton:

    I don’t get the impression the people God slaughtered in the flood were heaven-bound.

  18. Boonton says:

    I think Mark’s take on the flood story is that it didn’t actually happen but was symbolic. I think some Hindus might (anyone who knows please correct me if I’m wrong) take the same view of the Gita.

  19. Boonton:

    I get that. I was responding to your comment about how maybe God makes up for it not in “this life.”

    As for not taking the flood literally, that’s great and all, but the explanation he gave is no more evident in the text than a thousand other alternatives, so I wonder if intellectual Christianity is just about making up whatever “interpretations” you like and ignoring all the plain meanings which are not only ahistorical (i.e. untrue) but just plain evil, like God slaughtering every man, woman, and child on Earth save a family. In other words, his “interpretation” seems to ignore the most important part of the story! In his interpretation, God is protecting Noah, who represents the church, from turmoil. But in the story itself, God isn’t protecting Noah at all — he just gave him a heads up and instructed him on how to save himself before slaughtering everybody else. That’s a pretty big difference.

    I also suspect that this kind of “interpretation” often happens only after the original beliefs become untenable. Instead of admitting that the story wasn’t true, they come up with some new way of reading it that lets them avoid confronting what else might not be true in their belief systems.

    Also, given this non-literal interpretation of everything (if Moses’s live is up for grabs, which of course it should be, what isn’t?) it seems like Mark and other intellectual Christians actually agree with us atheists a lot more than they agree with the non-intellectuals who take *at least* the story of Moses’s life literally, and probably the flood story as well. However, they spend a lot more time arguing against us than they do against them. Mark will bend over backwards defending the “Intelligent Design” crowd by pretending that their arguments are more reasonable than they are, but he acts like we atheists are completely ridiculous for agreeing with 90% of what he believes.

  20. Mark says:

    JA,
    I see. My claims about the left and poetry are spot on. No messing about here, what the text says is all there is. You must have failed English Lit.

  21. I was an English Lit minor and got As in each of my English classes, fwiw. 🙂

    I just think it’s ridiculous to come up with an “interpretation” that is more creating a story from whole cloth and retrofitting it into the original story than it is an honest analysis of the themes and symbolism, etc. Specifically, to interpret the flood story in such a way that makes God look like the protector rather than the vengeful monster he is in the plain reading is ridiculous.

    Why start with the Bible at all? Why not just make up your own stories if that’s what you’re going to do anyway? Is it just to cynically bring along all the non-intellectuals who think the Bible actually has something to do with your religion?

  22. Boonton says:

    JA,

    I think you have a point about doing new interpretations when the original ones become untenable. Mark points to a very early Christian reinterpretation of the flood, but even in the days of the Roman Empire educated people would have a hard time swallowing a literal flood story.

    The question is why go through the trouble of doing a new interpretation? Lots of stories have become untenable to take literally and many of them we choose just to ditch. No one, for example, breaks a sweat trying to figure out which mountain in Greece Zeus really lives on top of and why he doesn’t opt to live on one of the many higher mountains in the world. Those stories are left in their original literal interpretation and simply no longer are considered important to believe in as truth.

    Why then the effort to reinterpretate the flood in such a way? There were alternative strategies early Christians could have taken. They could have ditched the Old Testatment as Jewish scribblings. They could have adopted a duelistic view of an evil Old Testament God and a good New one. At the end they found the story worthy of keeping hence they felt it needed to be reconciled rather than ditched. In this manner I wouldn’t be so dismissive of dismissing the literal reading of the story.

  23. Boonton,

    That’s what I find so frustrating about religious people! Someone like Mark might not even believe Moses existed while half of America thinks that the universe is 6,000 years old but through obfuscation and inventions like “non-literal hermeneutics” Mark gets to pretend that he and they share the same religion in a meaningful way. Also, he might change his actual beliefs a hundred times while still outwardly making the same claims, because if you’re being “non-literal,” well anything can mean anything, can’t it.

    It’d be like me claiming to be a theist, because God is the same as the universe and I believe in the universe.

    I just don’t have patience with all this language and philosophy devoted to muddying the waters rather than clarifying. How can we talk about theodicy, when who knows if Mark even believes in God? Maybe that’s just poetic or a metaphor or something.

  24. It’s just like that recent business with “In the year of our Lord…” The original crafters of that phrase obviously meant it literally, but Mark wants to pretend it’s just poetic, with no real meaning.

    WORDS HAVE MEANINGS.

  25. Boonton says:

    Again how did we get the idea that in poetry words can be meaningless? It is just the opposite, in poetry words are even more meaningful than usual!

  26. Boonton says:

    I agree Mark should address your point. Many people do take the Bible literally. Perhaps Mark should address the disconnect between what he views is historical views of where Bible stories were taken with a grain of salt and modern day Christians who take a more literal view. Likewise he might want to tell us where the last station is on the ‘not literal’ rail line for him. I assume he does believe the tomb of Jesus was really empty on Easter, for example.

  27. Mark says:

    Well, I wrote a reply to this … but it’s long enough to be a post. So find it on top. 😀

  28. Boonton says:

    OK I think Mark addressed the issue of how he could buy into the Noah story without at the same time believing God is a rotten SOB who killed the entire population minus Noah and his family.

    What I don’t think JA has resolved is the two resolutions to the theodicy issue that I presented:

    1. “Balancing the books” so that victims of evil are somehow compensated or offset.

    2. Infinity = (Infinity -1) – From the Gita POV, reincarnation basically makes all of us equal. Some turns of the wheel work out great for us, other turns work out horrible. Yes Christianity rejects reincarnation but not eternal life. Basically we all remain more or less equal. You get your 80 years of life on earth plus eternity. Some poor child gets 5 years plus eternity. Mathematically you both are exactly equal.

  29. Boonton:

    As for 1, there are two problems. The first is what reason is there to believe any balancing is going on? The second is, can you really “balance” things for victims of evil? Like if God murders your baby with an Earthquake, it is really okay if you get reunited with your baby in Heaven? Or two babies?

    As for 2… Everyone being equal doesn’t make things better, only more “fair.” If you have two kids and beat them equally, it’s not really better than beating one more than the other, is it? As for infinity, I don’t see how it cancels out the evil of this life. Yeah, it dwarfs it, but the evil still happened, right?

    The whole concept of applying math to evil seems ridiculous.

  30. Boonton says:

    I agree there’s no direct evidence that #1 happens. But that’s not its purpose. Its purpose is to try to say something we know must be true. If an entity like God exists and he is good and just then evil must be offset. You’re right this doesn’t establish God’s existence.

    can evil be offset? Why not? To play some sci-fi philosophy here, just imagine the mother having the memory of losing her child wiped and then gain the experience of fully getting to raise the child she was denied in her earthly life. By definition this mother would be in exactly the same state as one whose kid never died. Not only would this type of ‘book balancing’ be easy for something like God but it could even be done in a slightly more futuristic world where people can upload memories to themselves.

    IMO the ‘balancing’ is less campy than that, much more subtle. I would imagine it to be something like a moment of clarity and understanding. The memory of losing the child wouldn’t be erased. In fact, not only would that memory be part of the mother’s understanding but we’d also understand it, we all would understand the world as a whole including all its pain and evils.

    Which I suppose let’s me add a 1.5 as a possible method:

    1.5 – “You are me and I am you” – Imagine a moment of clarity where we all understand each other’s experiences. All the evil ever done would, in effect, be done to ourselves. The man who murdered the mothers baby would experience her pain as would the mother whose baby was never killed. In the end we all are equal making the sum of our experiences whatever they are, good or bad. If you want to work with the ice cream analogy, imagine right before the kids are allowed to start eating their cones, I put all the scoops in a communal bowel and pass our spoons. The bully who knocked the weak kids scoop on the floor has accomplished nothing and the weak kid is no less better off than the bully.

    #2 – I suppose you have a point that infinity dwarfs an evil life but doesn’t erase it. But maybe it does put things in perspective. When I was a kid the antics of the playground seemed very important. The universe was a tyrannical place ruled by the playground bullies who randomly picked on us and wouldn’t let us play kickball. Now I look at that and realize how trivial it all was, the hatred for the bullies is gone, replaced by pity and understanding for them. But I’m only removed from the playground by 30 years or so. In terms of eternity even the worse that this world dishes out may just be playground antics.

  31. Boonton says:

    One of the reasons I’m giving you a hard time on this JA is that it smacks to me of an attempt to launch a proof by exclusion…..something creationists used to argue a lot back when I hung out on Joe Carter’s site.

    What is proof by exclusion (my term for it)? Well say you are a prosecutor seeking to convict OJ for killing his wife. There’s two general ways to do it. One is to prove OJ did it. Another is to prove everyone else who could have done it, didn’t do it. Basically its Sherlock HOlmes adage about excluding all the possibilities and whatever you’re left with is the truth.

    Creationists try this method to attack evolution. There’s supposedly ‘no way’ life could have arising from chemicals in the ocean, no way new species could evolve useful traits etc. But the problem with this type of proof is that while it is perfectly logical it almost never works in the real world. Your mind’s ability to list and categorize ALL the possibilities is quite limited. Even if you listed everyone in LA the night OJ’s wife got killed and you prove all of them are innocent how could you be sure you didn’t miss someone?

    The Theodicy objection seems to me to smack of the same flaw. God (meaning one that isn’t tyrannical and ungood) supposedly can’t exist because such a God could not be reconciled with the existence of evil. But I just spun out a quarter dozen ideas on how evil could be reconcilied. Can you really say you can list all possible ideas and cross all of them off thereby proving God doesn’t exist?

    This style of proof is tempting because its like sinking a birdie on your first shot. If the whole world didn’t kill OJ’s wife then OJ did, no doubt. If there’s no way for a good God to allow evil to exist then a good God doesn’t exist. But as powerful as this proof is, it is horribly difficult to really accomplish, so difficult it is almost always useless IMO

  32. Boonton:

    I’m not trying to prove God doesn’t exist in this thread. I am saying that an all-good and all-powerful God who allows for tsunamis and horrific birth defects appears on its face to be contradictory. Many attempts at reconciliation have been offered, but I don’t find any close to convincing. I’m not saying it’s impossible for such an argument to be made, only that I’ve never heard one.

    As for your arguments specifically, no amount of “balancing” explains why the evil that has to be balanced is there in the first place.

    I think the answer for Christians should be obvious — who says God is all good? That’s kind of what I was getting at with my reference to Noah. The OT is full of God doing evil stuff. “Interpret” all you want, but God commits genocide and and kills children and condones slavery and talks about rape like the problem is that you have damaged another man’s property because clearly virgins are worth more money, etc.

    I don’t know where this idea of God being all good came from, but it sure wasn’t from the OT.