The Last Superstition: The Problem of Evil

Chapter 4: The problem of evil

This section deals with the problem of evil, a problem so big that, just as chemistry is divided into carbon (organic chemistry) and everything else, so I’m told theology is divided into the problem of evil (theodicy) and everything else. But first, Feser has to digress to lay some ground work and show the role of faith in all this.

He starts by observing that all or most monotheistic religions claim that divine revelation has occurred, and that there is evidence for this; and that mainstream Christians in particular claim that Jesus Christ existed, was resurrected, and that this a supportable historical fact. But then he turns around and says that, unless one accepts his other claims, such as that God exists and sustains the world from moment to moment, the existence of immortal souls, and so on, “the historical evidence for Christ’s resurrection might seem inconclusive at best, since any miracle will obviously seem less likely a priori if you don’t already know that there is a God who might produce one. [p. 155]” This seems a lot like saying that, unless you already believe in body thetans, you’re unlikely to accept claims about Xenu. Or, less charitably, “seeing is believing: if I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t have seen it.”

Feser declines to actually provide any evidence for Jesus’ resurrection (p. 156), but merely tells us that it’s out there somewhere. Normally, I’d grant this, since this isn’t a history book, but I do need to pause and wonder whether the evidence is really as compelling as he seems to think. Jews and Muslims, in particular, are not merely monotheists, but members of the same Abrahamic tradition as Feser. And they have no shortage of smart, educated religious scholars. They already believe in and worship the same God that Feser does, and agree (so I’m led to believe) in the life and death of Jesus Christ. Where they differ is on the question of whether Jesus was divine and perhaps whether he was resurrected. So if there were compelling evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, I would expect there to be few or no informed, intelligent religious scholars who didn’t wind up as Christians. But there are plenty. And secondly, I would expect to see the remaining Jewish or Muslim theologians to begin a lot of arguments with “Yes, Jesus was resurrected, but that doesn’t make Christianity right because …” But I don’t remember ever having seen an argument like that. As far as I can tell, Muslims consider Jesus’ resurrection to be as mythical as Muhammad’s ascension to Heaven. (I could be wrong, though; maybe they believe that Allah deigned to resurrect the prophet Jesus, because he liked him or something.)

Getting back to Feser’s train of thought:

Suppose you know through purely rational arguments that there is a God, that He raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and therefore that Christ really is divine, as He claimed to be, so that anything He taught must be true; in other words, suppose that the general strategy just sketched can be successfully fleshed out. Then it follows that if you are rational you will believe anything Christ taught; indeed, if you are rational you will believe it even if it is something that you could not possibly have come to know in any other way, and even if it is something highly counterintuitive and difficult to understand. For reason will have told you that Christ is infallible, and therefore cannot be wrong in anything He teaches. In short, reason tells you to have faith in what Christ teaches, because He is divine. [p. 156]

Note that, like so many apologists, Feser is trying to minimize the size of the requisite leap of faith. The core of faith is belief without evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence. But of course, if you define faith that way, it’s clearly not a reliable method for arriving at truth: people can and do believe all sorts of things without evidence, even outlandish things that aren’t true. And when believers say that atheists also have faith, it’s never meant as “we’re using the same tool; let’s find out why it gave us such different results”, but as “you don’t have a good reason to believe the things you believe either!”

And so it is necessary to pare “faith” down to something more reasonable, something closer to “trust”, or extrapolation from known facts. Ideally, the apologist wants to be able to say, “I’ve seen the sun rise thousands of times, and so I have faith that it will rise tomorrow.”

Here, Feser does the same thing, saying that if you already accept that Jesus existed and was resurrected, and if you accept that everything he said is true, then the further step to the conclusion that he is divine is not a giant leap of faith, but a mere baby step of faith.

Unfortunately, those are some very big ifs. I’ve asked believers in one religion what would convince them that some other religion is correct (e.g., asking a Christian to consider what it would take to convince them that Hinduism is correct). Some say that nothing could convince them. Others, more open-minded, say that it would take an awful lot of evidence. And whatever the case for Jesus’ resurrection might be, it’s not (so far) good enough to convince the two-thirds of humanity who aren’t Christian. Feser himself never tires of reminding us that the Aristotelianism he favors is a minority position even within Christianity, meaning that his arguments aren’t even good enough to convince a majority of Christian theologians. Of course, the mere fact that an opinion is in the minority doesn’t make it untrue. But if the Thomists haven’t made a convincing case in 700 years, I think the smart money is on them being wrong.

Laws of nature imply miracles

Given that God exists and that He sustains the world and the causal laws governing it in being at every moment, we know that there is a power capable of producing a miracle, that is, a suspension of those causal laws.

This doesn’t seem to follow: even if we grant the premise, that God exists and causes the laws of nature to work, that doesn’t mean that it can stop them from working.

In fact, Feser defined God as unchanging, earlier. A miracle, here, would seem to involve God ceasing to sustain a law (e.g., to allow the Red Sea to part), i.e., a change; and then allowing normal operations to resume, another change. Of course, it’s possible that what we think are the laws of nature are only approximations: that the true, unchanging law of gravity is “g = Gm1m2/r2, except as needed to allow Israelites to escape pursuing Egyptian forces”, and that God sustains this law at all times and places. Imagine, too, that all the other supposed laws of nature have similar exceptions: to allow Jesus to walk on water, for pictures of saints to cure diseases, and so forth. This would be a science-stopper: if every supposed rule might have such arbitrary exceptions, a failed experiment would be indistinguishable from a miracle (“and lo, the Lord did multiply the glucose and fructose, and it sufficed to nourish an entire Petri dish full of E. coli”).

Auschwitz, a moral rounding error

Eventually, Feser gets around to explaining how a triple-omni god can allow evil: the evil is more than made up for with the resulting good. Just as forcing a child to practice violin when he or she wants to play outside is more than made up when they become a violin virtuoso, so the evils we suffer in this life are made up with, well, with something else:

Of course, I am not claiming that the relatively minor suffering in question is comparable to the death of a child, or bone cancer, or Auschwitz. But then, neither could the relatively minor joy of being a great violinist compare to the beatific vision. Indeed, even the greatest horror we can imagine in this life pales in insignificance before the beatific vision. […] For the only way the atheist can make it plausible to say that nothing could outweigh Auschwitz, etc., is if he supposes that there is no God and thus no beatific vision.

I had to look up “beatific vision”, because Feser has only mentioned it once so far, and even that only in passing. But apparently it means “meeting God and knowing him directly”. And from context, I gather that this is supposed to be so good that it makes up for Auschwitz and every other evil. I hope you’ll forgive me if I find this idea implausible. I could even be talked into believing that it smacks of rationalization.

In addition, one well-known solution to the problem of evil is to weaken one of the omnis: if God is very good but not infinitely good, or knowledgeable but doesn’t know absolutely everything, or powerful but not all-powerful, the problem solves itself. And Feser dips into that bag as well:

Hence reason tells us that there is a God who created us for a destiny beyond this life and who is fully capable of guaranteeing that the good we attain in the next life outweighs the evil we suffer in this one to such an extent that the latter, however awful from our present point of view, will come to seem “not worth comparing” to the former, and indeed if anything will even be seen to have been worth having gone through from the point of view of eternity. [p. 163]

In other word, God doesn’t try to eliminate evil entirely; just bring it down to a negligible level. Feser’s God is good, but not all-good. So not-all-good that the Holocaust, the horrors of Auschwitz, the application of industrial methods to the slaughter of human beings, the cruelty that allowed the Nazis to force Jews to dig their own graves, and a thousand other indignities, cruelties, and terrors, that Feser’s god couldn’t be bothered to lift a divine finger to prevent it. If Feser can reduce the epitome of inhumanity to a mere moral rounding error, something too trivial for God to bother with, just to score a philosophical point, then he has solved the problem of evil by defining evil out of existence. And in the process, has shown again what despicable things people say when they’re trying to defend their religion.

Series: The Last Superstition

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2 Responses to The Last Superstition: The Problem of Evil

  1. Steve Watson says:

    I’m willing to grant that, in principle, a sufficiently pleasant afterlife might make up for even a thoroughly miserable earthly life, in the opinion of the victim, and if so, that this might be an acceptable answer to the problem of evil. But:
    1) It seems a rather obvious bit of special pleading against the far more likely answer that in fact, there is no moral actor in charge of the universe.
    2) Be that as it may, universal postmortem recompense is *not* the view of traditional Christianity (and therefore presumably Feser). Faithful Christians may get to bask in the Beatific Vision, but the rest of us (including, of course, most Auschwitz victims themselves) are consigned to an eternal super-Auschwitz. Unless of course you’re going to argue that the joy of the saved outweighs the miseries of the damned, but that seems one hell of a Utilitarian position to take.

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  2. Michael says:

    Muslims say that Jesus was not crucified, so never resurrected either. He died normally, and will be resurrected along with everyone else when the end comes. After that he will decide who goes to heaven or hell. As you say, they don’t find the evidence compelling. In fact, they feel the Bible is corrupted and unreliable.

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