Archive for the ‘problem of evil’ Category

Meaning, suffering, idealism, atheism

November 19, 2012

We finish Philosophy Bites today in CoPhi with John Cottingham on the meaning of life, Stephen Law on the problem of suffering, Keith Ward on eastern idealism, and A.C. Grayling on atheism.

There’s a sequel, Philosophy Bites BackMaybe next year.

“What is the meaning of life? Does it, perhaps, have no meaning at all?” It may have no fixed, final, universal, or intrinsic meaning, but for an emergent and pluralistic species that’s no barrier to emergent meanings, in the plural. Why settle for just one, or even forty-two?  [MoL @dawn] But that’s not to say we can “create our own values,” a la Friedrich Nietzsche. “We have to find value within a given cosmos, a world that is not of our making.” Humility is called for, not arrogant “will to power.”

Cottingham on “Happiness, God, and the Meaning of Life”:

I do continue to think the Pythons pretty well nailed the answer to the meaning of life, if we take the question as asking how practically we should live:

Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.

I can confirm Cottingham’s statement about “meaning” in the largest sense being an embarrassing or illicit question amongst many professional academic philosophers. When I found the MoL course in Vandy’s catalog a few years ago it was dusty and moldering. I dusted it off and had a great semester with it. Last thing we read, as I recall, was Viktor Frankl on Man’s Search for Meaning. He rediscovered the wisdom of the Stoics, in the death camps. “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Is there a more profoundly human philosophical problem than how to live well, when life itself is tough and tenuous? And when is it not?

Evil or suffering is an existential problem for us all, but it’s a philosophical problem (or a logical one) for those who wish to assert the reconciliation of an omni-propertied God with the facts on the ground. [PoE/suffering @dawn] But let’s not get carried away in the opposite direction. “There’s just too much good stuff in the world”– like rainbows, laughter, sunshine, ice cream, Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, the Jupiter Symphony, Louis Armstrong— “for this to be plausibly the creation of a supremely powerful, supremely evil being.” Flipped either way, towards good OR evil, the idea of a Supreme Being becomes a joke. So “we should probably do without any gods at all.”

Speaking of “flip,” Bertrand Russell often was. But his rhetorical question about intelligent design is still devastating nonetheless, for the problem of evil and suffering: “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?”

And Simon Blackburn’s dorm analogy still hits close to home, even though they’ve leveled this one to make room for our new Science Building.

Law’s “evil god challenge,” and on Believing Bullshit: How Not to Get Sucked Into an Intellectual Black Hole:

“Is the ultimate nature of reality non-physical?” If kicking a stone won’t settle that question, it’s not clear why it should matter (pun partially intended) to most of us any more than it did to Dr. Johnson. But we might be more interested, today, in Keith Ward’s comments on atheists and why he’s not one anymore:

“Is belief in the existence of a God or gods the equivalent of believing that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden? Or can it be defended on the basis of reason or evidence?” Anthony Grayling says “the best and deepest thinking about ethics has come from non-religious traditions” that value reason and evidence over faith and fairies.

[atheism/Grayling @dawn… Meditations for the Humanist: Ethics for a Secular Age… The Good Book: A Humanist Bible]

In EEA we’re between texts, with Van Jones just behind us and the late Ernest Callenbach‘s Ecotopia just ahead. We wish. In the interim, we eagerly anticipate a visit with our esteemed university president Dr. Sidney McPhee, from whom we hope to get the green light on greening our campus. Stay tuned.

Belief in miracles subverts understanding: David Hume

April 29, 2011

I arrived on campus Wednesday just as the sirens started to wail, but we were given the all-clear in time for our last NW class to proceed. Heard good reports on alt-energy and pre-Pueblo/pre-Columbian civilization from Matt & Nathan. Another of George Washington’s walnut trees hit the ground in front of Cope Hall, but on the whole we were very lucky. They weren’t so lucky a couple hundred miles to our south.

The storms knocked out our Internet at home, making “Dead Day” (aka Study Day) an especially good one for reflecting on luck. I guess I’d call that Tuscaloosa firefighter whose 8-year old survived a terrifying Oz moment lucky.

 I said, R.J., which is my older son, get up, son. And right when I said get up and I put my hands on him, the walls went, and he went. He just – he left. The tornado took him right then. I held onto what I have which is James Peter, and my wife held onto my other son, which I could hear her praying to my left. And I was praying over my boy, and I said -and I could see his little face (unintelligible) I could see him. He was looking up. I said it’s OK. It’s OK. And I was getting hit, you know? I was just shielding him. And my wife yells – she said: Do you have R.J.? I said no. I said I don’t. And then, I heard her get louder praying. And then, I started – I kept going, and I look up, and my oldest son come walking right through the rubble. And I got…

NORRIS: He walked back.

Mr. EPPES: He walked back the rubble.

NORRIS: How old is R.J.?

Mr. EPPES: R.J. is eight. My boys are eight, six and four.

Despite Older Daughter’s insistence I wouldn’t call the youngster’s incredibly lucky survival a “miracle,” for all the good reasons David Hume gave us.

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish….’

Whoever is moved by Faith to assent to [miracles] is conscious of a continued miracle in his own person, which subverts all the principles of his understanding, and gives him a determination to believe what is most contrary to custom and experience.

It was astonishing, extraordinary, inexplicable, sure… but not a sign of divine grace or intervention, unless your notion of the divine includes arbitrary cruelty and death for all those whose luck ran out, and hell on earth for so many of the survivors.

And yet the man in Alabama says, astonishingly: “I do know that neither my wife nor I would have lost any of our faith if we lost any of our children.” The claim to know such a thing, and to boast of it, is as close to miraculous as David Hume or I can imagine. And “contrary to custom and experience,” in this context, is a nice way of saying crazy.


February 19, 2011

Our anticipation was not disappointed, the Ehrman talk yesterday afternoon filled the large auditorium as well as the closed-circuit spillover room (of the same building, btw, where our latest campus outlaw had been apprehended at the beginning of the week).

It must also have filled the Bible thumpers in the house– and there were just a few, judging by some of the Qs from the floor during Q-&-A– with discomfort. Bart was respectful but firm, as when he responded to one: “I don’t believe iconic paintings of the Blessed Virgin weep tears of oil paint, but if you do I have no problem with that.”

He’d already respectfully and methodically assembled damning evidence of the Bible’s “copy of a copy of a copy…” of an errant copy pedigree. But still he declined to insist on construing this most errant text-by-committee’s obviously all-too-human provenance as conclusive proof of the adventitious nature of Christian holy writ. Only those literalists and fundamentalists who assert the Bible’s straight, immaculate, unadulterated descent from the Creator’s mouth to our ears need feel subverted by this scholarship.

Not that they will, or will admit it. Nor will the True Believers of other faiths admit that sauce for the goose sauces their gander too. One thanked Bart for pointing out the Bible’s imperfections. “We Muslims have been saying that for years.”  Bart was too modest and polite to point out the findings of Koranic scholars that their holy book

could well stand as the supreme example of a man-made text, worked over and doctored to an unfathomable extent, and subsequently endowed with a transcendental provenance by the associative and projective proclivities of the human imagination… ‘if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence simply doesn’t make sense…. The fact is that a fifth of the Koranic text is just incomprehensible.’

Then someone asked if Bart would be willing to discuss his own personal journey from evangelical fundamentalism to agnosticism. He gave us the short version of God’s Problem:

I realized that I could no longer reconcile the claims of faith with the facts of life. In particular, I could no longer explain how there can be a good and all-powerful God actively involved with this world, given the state of things. For many people who inhabit this planet, life is a cesspool of misery and suffering. I came to a point where I simply could not believe that there is a good and kindly-disposed Ruler who is in charge of it.

…If God is at work in the darkness, feeding the hungry with the miraculous multiplication of loaves, why is it that one child– a mere child!– dies every five seconds of hunger. Every five seconds.

Unlike my colleague who described himself, at the post-talk party, as a “F*$k You, you’re wrong!” kind of guy, non-pluralistic and proud of it, Bart refrains from insisting that his own response to the problem of suffering is coercive. It’s for each of us to wrestle with, and decide in conscience.

Speaking of the post-talk party: I loved hearing from Bart what it’s like to meet Stephen Colbert in the Green Room (he’s been on the show twice) and then try to keep up with his lightning wit under the klieg lights.

It was also terrific, at the party, to hear from a colleague in another department that ours has gained a strong reputation for the way we responded to administrators’ attempts, awhile back, to question the need for a philosophy department at all. If nothing else, we’re needed to sponsor Lyceum talks like yesterday’s.

Thanks for coming, Bart. (And thanks for inviting him, Mike.) Give our best regards to Chapel Hill.


July 12, 2010

What a nice, needed rainy Sunday afternoon it was here. The parched ground drank it in and so did we, with Granny over from her temporary rehab nursing “home” for a visit– she’s recovering slowly but surely from the latest broken hip– as we flipped the clicker back and forth from South Africa (viva Espana!) to the gorgeous French countryside full of parched cyclists. There were a few collisions in both places, including one that derailed Lance Armstrong’s quest for a cloud-free comeback, but nothing you’d call a train-wreck.

Granny brought and left the latest edition of The Nashville Retrospect, with its morbidly fascinating account of the deadliest train-wreck in American history. It happened on July 9, 1918, just a couple of miles from where I sit, at a site now commemorated with a plaque and a shady bench on the recently-flooded Richland Creek greenway.

I don’t know why train-wrecks are so irresistibly interesting, in all their grotesque and appalling misery. The one in question drew thousands of spectators, the newspapers of the day reported, many of whom were disappointed to arrive and find the tracks already cleared. The self-centered “there but for the grace of God” mentality must be part of it.

More than the gawkers’ insensitivity, though, I’m struck by the purple piety of the journalist who wrote of one poor victim, heard repeatedly wailing “Oh God Oh God,”

cramped in that telescoped coach and wounded unto death could he cry out unto Him who had breathed the breath of life into his soul and was now taking that life away.

More prosaically, the reporter also notes that “somebody blundered.”  He does not note the incoherence of attributing blunders to train routers and engineers, but only generous and divine favor to their maker.