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

Kitty Theodicy

One of the standard replies to the problem of evil is that evil and pain serve a greater purpose, such as when a mother allows her child to be painfully jabbed with a polio shot. It may suck to have your house robbed, but if God intervened by taking away free will (including the robber), that would be even worse.

I’m not buying it, and here’s why.

I have a cat with an infection, so I’m giving her antibiotics twice a day. For those without pets, this involves laying her on her back, putting an eyedropper between her teeth, and squirting in a bit of liquid (that smells and tastes like medicine, natch) in her mouth. She doesn’t want to swallow, but since she’s on her back, with the liquid pooling in her throat, eventually she has no choice but to swallow. I could have gone with pills, but those are even harder to administer.

In short, to my cat, I’m like the aforementioned god, doing bad things to her for no purpose that she can discern. But we humans, with our superior intelligence, recognize that the pain and suffering I inflict serve a greater purpose.

And that’s where the similarities between me and God end. Among the differences: when I inflict pain on my cat, at least I have the balls to show myself. My cat can see me, smell me, hear me, touch (and scratch) me. I don’t resort to manipulating natural forces to do the dirty work for me. And when I do use an intermediate (such as the vet), I at least try to let her know that I’m there, and that it’s okay.

There’s also a limit to how much pain I will inflict on my cat. If she needed an operation, I would make damn sure she was anesthetized for it. And if she were in constant pain from an incurable disease, I would prefer that she be put to sleep rather than have to suffer.

But it doesn’t work that way in the greater world. Even setting aside the mind-boggling amount of pain in the animal world (e.g., when an Ichneumon wasp larva eats its host from the inside, or when lions eat a still-living gazelle) and concentrating just on God’s favorite species, humans, why are there lingering diseases? Why do people bleed to death after being hit by a rock slide? Why do people’s limbs rot away from gangrene?

For that matter, why does torture work? I don’t mean in the sense of extracting useful intelligence. I mean in the sense of inflicting unbearable pain and suffering without even the release of death? You’d think that an all-powerful and merciful god could set things up so that when the pain gets too bad, a built-in anesthetic could kick in and make us oblivious. In extreme cases, sufferers could quickly and quietly slip away into death. But if there’s any such mechanism, it hasn’t been brought to my attention. Yes, there’s the way people freezing to death are said to die peacefully, feeling warm. Why doesn’t that work for drowning or or poison or stabbing?

In the Christian religion, in particular, there’s a strong emphasis on Jesus’ suffering, both before his crucifixion and on the cross. Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ hammered this point home repeatedly, and was quite popular at the box office.

But I don’t remember anyone suggesting that Jesus suffered more than normal, given the things that were done to him. Why did he die after a day on the cross, like crucifixion victim ever? Why not a week, a month, a year? Compare that to Prometheus, who gave humans fire; his punishment was to be chained to a mountain where every day vultures rip out his liver, and every night it grows back to be torn out again the next day. As far as I know, Prometheus is still tied to his rock, while Jesus got to be king of the universe after three days. Now that’s suffering. As has been pointed out, Jesus had a really bad weekend for our sins.

So the sheer amount of suffering is far beyond any reasonable measure, with no relief mechanisms other than the ones we humans have come up with, like morphine and appendectomies. The world looks exactly the way it would if there were no guiding intelligence taking an interest in our well-being.

And even if suffering were necessary for some master plan, you’d think God would be able to at least show up in person and say so, even if our minds are too puny to understand the plan itself. But no. God, if he/she/it exists, can’t even be bothered to show up and say it’s okay. So why worship a being like that?

Analogy O’ the Week

Daniel Dennett, about why God allows innocents to suffer:

The Problem of Evil, capital letters and all, is the central enigma confronting theists. There is no solution. Isn’t that obvious? All the holy texts and interpretations that contrive ways of getting around the problem read like the fine print in a fraudulent contract–and for the same reason: they are desperate attempts to conceal the implications of the double standard they have invented.

(emphasis added.)

As usual, Dennett manages to clear away the rhetorical brush that hides the central problem, and gets to the point. I’ll have to remember this analogy.

Figuring out the Trilemma of Evil

I’d never been quite satisfied with the problem of evil (if God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, how can there be evil?) because it looked like a false trilemma, like C.S. Lewis’s liar, lunatic, or lord.

Lewis’s trilemma fails because it doesn’t account for all possibilities (e.g., a fourth possibility is “legend”). So how do we know that omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence cover all possibilities in the problem of evil? Granted, the fact that a lot of very smart people have looked at it for millennia, so it’s probably solid, but it always bothered me that I hadn’t seen a good demonstration that it wasn’t a false trilemma.

But then I reasoned thusly:

  1. If there is evil in the world, and God is omniscient, then God knows about it.
  2. If God knows about evil, and is omnibenevolent, then God wants to fix it.
  3. If God wants to fix evil, and is omnipotent, then God can fix it.

I like this formulation because the three parts of the argument flow from each other.