Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Problem Of Evil

The Problem of Evil
Will G

Assume for the moment that there is only one substance that exists, and it is a perfect substance. This is also the greatest possible thing that exists. It is the greatest possible thing that exists not only because it thinks, loves, feels, knows everything, can do everything, and has every positive and good quality that one can think of; it is great partly because it is the only thing that can exist. It possesses all of the greatest properties that can be thought of, including the property of 'Superexistence', which means that only it can exist.

This is what I understand to be God. To the extent that something exists it is God, and is perfect - perfection equalling existence. To the extent that anything does not exist it is not God and is imperfect (note I don't think I or the universe is God but this will be explained later.)

Assume for the moment that as part of this perfection God is perfectly loving - lovingness being a positive attribute. I think there are arguments that any God would necessarily be loving (see sidebar) but I will just assume this here.

Would this God want to create other persons? I think it would, in order to love them and make them happy.

But how would God create other persons if God is the only thing that can exist? If God created anything that existed it would have to be God, because existence equals perfection, which equals being God. So there seems to be no way for God to create any other person - to even make something is to make something that is God.

But maybe God can create things that don't really exist as much as he does, kind of like shadowy versions of God (like 'ghosts' if you will.) These creatures would exist, but would only partially exist. This would be a way to create different personalities from God, since because these creatures only partially exist, then they would have to be logically distinct from God in their identity. This would give these creations their own personalities and souls, identities, apart from God. Actually, this is the only way God could create other people, since if God created anything that was fully real, it would have to be God by definition, since God is that which exists.

A question is, what would being only partially real do to those persons God creates? Well, being a person is to have thoughts, feelings; a mind. And being a person is a very basic part of who God is: being a person is a very basic part of what the perfect substance is. And not just a person, but as we discussed with positive qualities, a very loving person - the perfect being is perfectly loving. So perhaps by being less 'real', sharing less in the substance of God, these persons God creates - everyone, actually - would be kind of evil or flawed in a way. Every thinking being would be created with a kind of original sin in other words (but we don't actually do anything to earn this, since it's pretty much automatic from being created with a different identity to God.)

This could cause problems for Christian theology, because you can't say that people are created evil, although we do have original sin. But if you think of evil as actual actions that people are responsible for, then people created like this don't have to be thought of as evil, since they haven't done anything. Although everyone would have a kind of flawed character. So in that sense no one is created evil, although we don't share in the perfect goodness of God by definition.

What other effects might being partially real have on persons? I think a very plausible effect would be to make people suffer while they are imperfect. Think about it like this: God is a perfect person, who exists fully. As the perfect person, God is perfectly contented: God is perfectly happy. But these beings are only partially real and so only partially share in the perfect substance with all its perfect qualities. In other words they have a weaker version of the attributes God has. So they would be less happy, it would seem, like they are less loving. Actually, if you look at how much evil is in the world, it makes sense that humans lack the perfect substance so much so that we're really really unhappy, and one of the ways this unhappiness manifests is that we suffer evil.

That would explain why any creatures God creates would be very unhappy, but there are really strong issues with applying this to our world. First of all, unhappiness is not the same as evil. Secondly, different people suffer unhappiness or evil differently. Some people live really lucky lives, other people experience incredible suffering, but this would seem to demand we are all unhappy equally. Thirdly, we suffer from physical events, not a vague kind of 'lack' in our lives, but real things being taken away, like deaths of loved ones etc., not a vague feeling of discontent. Also, we appear to suffer evil in response to physical events in the universe, not spiritual problems in our souls.

But actually, it can make sense with what we see. First of all, it's true that unhappiness isn't the same as evil, but let's say instead of talking about God being completely happy, we talk about God experiencing complete 'goodness' in his life. Goodness is like happiness but is a more broad view of 'human flourishing'; to basically be fulfilled in one's existence. But if God experiences complete goodness in his life because he fully exists, thereby fully shares in the perfect substance (or rather, IS the perfect substance) then other creatures that only partially exist would not experience complete goodness in their lives but a lack of good. And what is it to lack good? To lack good is to not have things that we would have a right to in a perfect world. And humans have a right to a happy and fulfilled life, so us lacking good is either never having that goodness in our lives, or having goodness drained out of our lives: like losing loved ones, experiencing intense suffering, etc. These are things we have a right not to experience, or would not in a perfectly just world.

So then all people logically must experience a lot of evil in their lives, and not just suffering, because you can suffer but still be generally happy about things, but real evil. This answers some questions, but why do we all experience different levels of evil? Some hardly suffer; others suffer incredibly. How could God do this, and more importantly, why?

Well, God could do this because he is all-powerful, and there doesn't seem to be a contradiction in God distributing evil out to people, so that some people suffer more but others suffer less. This could also happen over time as well, so some eras have less suffering in them than others. But why would God distribute evil out instead of letting all creatures suffer the same? Letting everyone suffer the same rather than pile so much of it on some people would seem to be more fair.

That is a more difficult question. It is difficult, but it's not as impossible a problem as one might think. Let's say a child dying is equivalent to 10 units of evil. If God decides to prevent the child from dying, then the same amount of evil has to happen, it just gets spread out more. So let's say instead of a child dying 10 people will suffer 1 unit of evil each: the exact same quantity of evil. So really the situation isn't hugely worse off if God concentrates evil on some people, although it still needs explaining - plus it also helps to consider that God can make up for it in the afterlife, to those who he selected to suffer the most (more on the afterlife in a moment). Another problem is why God doesn't give most of the evil to evil people, since they would seem to deserve it more. That's another difficulty, but perhaps there is an answer within some theological framework or a mysterious plan of God, or whatever. It doesn't defeat this theodicy but it is a bullet that needs to be bitten.

But how come we suffer evil in response to physical events of evil? - not God handing out units of evil to us. Well, actually it would make sense that we would experience evil through physical events like hurricanes, etc. and other such things rather than some strange system of God assigning evil to us in another way. Because if God simply assigned us to suffer evil then the evil wouldn't make any sense, we would just suffer randomly even if nothing physical happened. So since we do exist in a physical world, God has chosen to make the evil we suffer align with physical events like hurricanes, and other disasters, including allowing humans to freely hurt one another very badly, to make our world understandable. But evil ultimately has nothing to do with anything physical, it just always goes along with a physical event.

And the same is true for goodness and happiness; they always go along with events but the actual 'flourishing as a person' itself is something we get from being part of the perfect substance. God himself would be perfectly contented and happy even if he never chose to do anything, and so could we if we were more real and had more of the perfect substance even if we never did anything and nothing ever happened to us (but we would do things like help other people because of the loving aspect of our personalities.)

(One might point out it in response that it would make things a lot easier for us if God actually *did* come down and assign us units of evil rather than appearing completely absent, or at least comforted us more, but maybe his absence is part of the evil? Suffering would be greater if humanity had no assurance that there was a perfectly good God.)

This can explain very well why, according to logical necessity, there must be a huge amount of evil in our universe, and in any reality God creates. But I appear to have explained why there must be a lot of evil only at the cost of making every religion pointless, because as it stands there's nothing God can do about it. But actually, there is something God can do about this state of affairs, although it opens up another weakness in the theodicy (that I think is surmountable.)

Can God do anything about this terrible state of affairs? Remember, God is infinitely powerful within logical laws, and one shouldn't underestimate what God can do. It makes sense that God could actually overcome this 'partial existence' of persons, to make everyone share in his perfect happiness forever.

As a Christian I'll propose that God offers all creatures the ability to receive the Holy Spirit, who can, among other things, allow any creature to share in the perfect substance, to share in God's perfection and moral goodness, even though the creatures still, and always will, partially exist. By accepting the Holy Spirit, with God's help we can somehow bypass the partialness of our existence. Therefore, we won't 'partially exist' in the way we do now, and so will not have to suffer any evil whatsoever - we can be as happy or experience as much goodness as either God or any perfect creature can.

But there is one proviso or limitation on this process, which I think is pretty plausible. Does God need our involvement in this process of making us perfect (or speaking as a Christian, accepting the Holy Spirit?) It makes a lot of sense that our will would have to be involved somewhere in this process. After all, we are accepting something God does to us. But if our will needs to be involved somewhere, then logically there has to be at a time when we're actively involving our will or accepting the choice. Because if there's a time when we're accepting the Holy Spirit, then logically there has to be a moment of experiencing accepting the Holy Spirit, when we're not already perfect. And therefore logically, there's an experience of being a partially existing person, with all the evil that must involve in our lives.

Now, if God doesn't need our involvement to make us perfect then God can create us already perfect, defeating this idea. But I think that God does need our involvement somewhere, so we have to experience a moment of imperfection and therefore evil.

But this could a raise a problem for this theodicy if we really do interpret God being all powerful in a very strong way. Because if God really is very powerful, then why does this moment of us accepting the Holy Spirit have to last for the 14 or so billion years that our universe has existed? Or more precisely, all of the years of suffering humanity has collectively suffered (and animals)? It seems God could go through this a lot more quickly, being all powerful and so on.

I agree completely - actually I think that God could probably go through the acceptance-of-the-Holy-Spirit process in just a single moment of existence - a single moment of choosing to accept the Holy Spirit for everyone.

This is the greatest weakpoint in the theodicy, which is that although I can explain how a world could exist like our world with all its evil, and yet there be an all powerful all good God, I can't explain why it goes on for so long. But there are some ameliorating considerations that make this objection survivable.

First of all, whether it's one moment or a trillion years, the amount of evil suffered over the average moment will always be the same. So in that one moment, if you can imagine taking the average amount of evil humans have suffered over our history, and taking a time slice of that average moment of experience, then that is the amount of evil creatures would have to experience over that one moment. So God makes us suffer a greater absolute quantity of evil by extending the number of moments in the universe, but we suffer the same relative amount of evil over the average moment. So even though it's just one moment, that one moment would have a lot of evil, and God doesn't make the situation much worse for us if he extends the moment, since it's only a continuation of the same evil over many moments.

Secondly, if all of us, or depending on your beliefs, those of us who choose well, are going to a perfect afterlife, then our earthly suffering doesn't take away from that future. We suffer a lot but ultimately we have an eternity of bliss ahead of us, during which our earthly sufferings compared to our total experience of bliss will be much less than a grain of sand compared to all the atoms in the universe. So provided God has some kind of decent reason for it (and I'm not sure what it is) then this would be a morally acceptable thing to do, to extend the moment.

NOTE ON THE UNIVERSE BEING SEPARATE FROM GOD: I don't think humans actually live in God in a panentheist sense, although I do think that the only thing that exists or can exist is a perfect substance that is God. The way this makes sense is that God can create things which are 'kind of' separate from him, of which the universe is an example, but this is only by sustaining those things as intimately as anything can sustain anything, and by using all his power. It's only through this intimate sustaining that God can create the universe kind of separate from him. And even then whatever affects God affects the universe, although whatever affects the universe doesn't affect God. So the universe is kind of like a book resting on a shelf, to use a CS Lewisian analogy, the shelf being God, or like a bar of metal welded together, where you can just make out where the weld is, and where one half of the bar sustains the other half when stood up.

IF EVERYONE IS PARTIALLY EXISTENT TO THE SAME DEGREE, WHY ARE SOME PEOPLE BETTER OR WORSE THAN OTHERS?: It really is the case that if God creates people, then people are equal in a fundamental kind of way. To use an analogy explaining this: if you are a watchmaker, you make the best watches you can. If you have no reason to make bad watches, and every reason to make good watches, then you'll do the best job you can. So God makes all of us the best he can make us, which means he makes us all equally well. Now, we do have different physical abilities, but this is because there are in a sense two kinds of creation, us being created as souls and us being created as physical persons. In the physical world we have different abilities but that has nothing to do with our abilities or personality as a soul. The only thing that can ever tarnish or take away from the perfection (or as good as God can make us) of the soul, is through our own choices, because we have free will. So even though God creates all of us as good as he can, as fully existent as possible, through our character or good or evil choices we can become better or worse people. This explains how people all created equally by God can have different moral characters.


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