PW 1.1

I’ve been using this little bookPassion for Wisdom, which attempts to render the history of philosophy at a break-neck pace (128 pages… and it flies even faster in the Kindle edition), as a centerpiece (or “spine”)  in my Intro courses for many years. Last semester’s different approach was ok, but I think we’ll have better luck with Passion restored to pre-eminence. So, today we kick off our weekly Monday readings from it with a particular focus on the classic “problem of evil.”  PW 1

The monotheistic version of the question’s been around for at least 2,600 years, since the time of Zoroaster in Persia (who inspired Nietzsche’s Zarathustra): “How can God allow so much suffering and wrongdoing [from human malfeasance, natural disasters, etc.] in the world?” More non-theists attribute their inability to believe in a benevolent deity to this problem than to any other cause. As the philosopher David Hume (echoing Epicurus) put it in the 18th century: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

The most common reply: free will. But what’s that got to do with earthquakes in Lisbon and San Francisco and Haiti? What’s it got to do with innocent children who get swept away in floods and tsunamis and tornadoes and hurricanes? Suppose you’re a kindergarten teacher, and you sit idly by while little Johnny pokes his classmates’ eyes out?  “I gave him the stick but it was his free choice to use it that way.” Not so impressive a defense, especially if you possess omniscience.

And omnipotence and moral perfection and a little common sense. Good people aren’t robots, so why couldn’t God have created only people like them, people who quite freely live good lives? As the Archbishop of York said recently of Haiti, “I have nothing to say to make sense of this horror.” That’s one bishop with more sense than Pat Robertson. (But my dog has more sense than Pat Robertson.) He knows (as does Dan Dennett) there’s no verbal solution to this problem.

This semester I’m also using another book by Solomon for the first time, in A&S: Spirituality for the Skeptic.

Coincidentally: my iPod clock radio woke me yesterday to a Philosophy Bites podcast featuring a philosopher from UNC, Marilyn Adams. She contends that optimists can only sustain their optimism by believing in some “Super-human” power capable of “making good” on all the suffering and evil that can befall humans in this life. That view didn’t look so promising to Voltaire, at least not through Leibniz‘s “best possible world” spectacles.

And there are other problems with the picture of a controlling divine over-seer whose all-seeing, all-knowing micro-management might seem less than nice to those whose personal destiny is less than the best.

Robert Solomon was an optimist, and a skeptic about super-human powers. He didn’t agree with Professor Adams at all, as we’ll discuss.

When I think of Solomon, my first thought is of his cameo appearance in a strange and wondrous film called Waking Life. And then I think of what Thoreau said about wakefulness– “to be awake is to be alive”– and that brings my mental train inevitably to the now-slumbering Warren Zevon, who said “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”…

I need to get that on my iPod!

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4 Responses to “PW 1.1”

  1. Alyssa Ritchason Says:

    One point/argument that we have read about and discussed is the idea that from the begining of human existence people have desired a God or a moral figure to look to. Many people have looked to the God of the Holy Bible. As we talked about in class today people question why a perfect, all knowing God allows suffering.

    My argument is not that people are looking for a God, but a God that is fair based on their standards. God is perfect and His standards are different than ours…they are perfection. We aren’t perfect and if we were to recieve what is fair to us based on our actions, at best we’d get hell. If anybody had to die/suffer unfairly it was Jesus Christ. My argument as a Christian is that salvation is more than we deserve and no suffering compares to that.

    A quote from David Nasser’s book “A Call to Die” “Why does God allow suffering in our lives? and Why doesn’t he rescue us immediately? Pain produces chatacter in our lives like no amount of pleasure possibly can. Failure and rejection force us to seek God’s face just as Moses did. When we go to him in desperation, our ears and our hearts are more open to him than ever before……Resistance and repetition of exercise makes muscle grow. Suffering and repetition of trusting God in those painful times makes our faith grow in him.” pg.152

    If God had made everyone perfect it would be because there was no free will. God creates us with the ability to choose right from wrong. He in essence allows us to choose or not to choose evil. Just because he forsees our actions does not mean he chooses them for us as though we are on puppet strings. And there need not be an explanation for why there is evil in the world. We can’t fully comprehnd God and maybe that is unfair in our eyes, but it is fair for a soveriegn God who by grace gave us life to begin with.

    This comment opens up for even more complex questions/arguments when discussing soveriegnty, I know. However, this is a start.

  2. Brandt Cowan Says:

    I don’t think that the problem of evil is the reason most people are atheist. being an atheist myself and having several friends who are as well, I have never heard that as a reason. That’s a pitiful reason not to believe in a god. Most people I know of that are atheist have several reasons to go on, because any christian that knows how to argue will point out that the problem of evil was brought upon our selves because of adam and eve according to the bible. I don’t think the problem of evil is a theological topic, as much of a nature topic. Without evil and suffering, we can’t have good things. If we can’t have failure and misery, we could never enjoy triumph and well being. I don’t see suffering as a “why is this happening to me” moment, I see it as, “what did I do to make this happen, how can I avoid it, and how can I rise above it” situation. I believe a person can be optimitstic without believing in a god or afterlife. I go through my day just fine without hoping for either. The human need for somethin higher than ourselves is somethin that in itself has brought much suffering, concering both mass population and one’s own personal life. People don’t think they can be good without an all knowing being baby-sitting them.

  3. osopher Says:

    Alyssa,
    “Salvation is more than we deserve”– ? Sorry, but I’ll have to ask you to speak for yourself on that one. And as for the putative creator’s perfection I have to echo Bertrand Russell’s old observation and question: “It is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?” Or the Haitian disaster? Or Pat Robertson?

    “Pitiful,” Brandt?! You’ve never heard anyone say they’d been moved by the problem of evil to reject theism? Hmmm. We move in different circles, I guess.

  4. Zach Barnhart Says:

    I think what Bertrand Russell fails to forget is the real definitions of omniscience and omnipotence. Omniscience according to the dictionary means “having complete or unlimited knowledge, awareness, or understanding; perceiving all things.” Omnipotence means “having very great or unlimited authority or power.”

    With that said, God is an omnipotent and omniscient being. How can he not be omnipotent if indeed he is the Creator of the universe? Anyone who thinks God created the world and everything in it, yet has no power over what happens in this world, is a lunatic.

    God understands that the Ku Klux Klan and the Fascists exist. He created those people. He is very aware that these kinds of operations have entered the world. But for what motivation? There are many reasons these kinds of groups, not to mention thousands of horrible unpreventable crimes and disasters, occur in our lifetime. So why doesn’t God create a magical world where no crimes, no natural disasters, no death, no suffering exists? It seems like an ideal world from the surface. However, there are many reasons it wouldn’t work. For one, in a magical world, how would characteristics such as “bravery,” “boldness,” “faith,” and even the very basics of morality begin to develop? In a perfect world, there is no need to “do the right thing” or to “stand for what you believe in”. There would also be no desire for a perfect eternity spent in Heaven if we lived in a perfect world.

    Though this is the case, why do natural disasters kill children, who’ve never done anything wrong to speak of? God is to be feared. In order for us to fully understand that, how else would we learn of God’s omnipotence if He didn’t show us? I wouldn’t fear God as much if we lived in a world that natural disasters never happened. Granted, we all know that God is the ideal symbol of love. His love is perfect and without fault. It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around this idea of a perfect-loving God who is also deserving of our fear due to his power and dominion.

    So technically, The skeptic has it partly right — suffering should offend our sense of goodness. However, the rest of the argument that because suffering violates goodness, there must be an all-good, all-powerful God whose remedy restores the perfection He created. :

    I consider the that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. [Romans 8:8]

    Suffering and death in this sinful world are not without remedy. The only reasonable response to the existence of suffering is confidence in God’s promises for eternity:

    Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. . . . Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. [Matt. 5:3-10]

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