What Are We Really Asking With the Problem of Evil?

I often begin to ponder the problem of evil on this site and even wrote a long 10 post series on it. In addition to that, as some people may have noticed, I’m quite critical of most theodicies that Christians offer concerning the existence of evil in this world.

I think modern theodicy has shown quite adequately that the existence of evil does nothing to threaten the existence of God. Christianity teaches that humans have free will and the existence of free will always allows for the chance for evil to occur. While some may debate whether or not we have free will, that deals more with the correspondence of Christianity to the real world, not with the internal consistency. In other words, to prove we don’t have free will would do more to question Christianity as a religion itself; there would be no need to bring up the problem of evil.

Thus, when we ask why God allows certain horrible actions to occur, we could equally ask why we continue to do them. Likewise, if God did step in to stop the most atrocious of evil actions, then the somewhat “acceptable” evils not would become atrocious and we would ask why God doesn’t stop those. Eventually, God’s duties would be relegated to ensuring that our ice cream never fell off the cone and that our internet never went out. Of course, this would destroy all free will which would negate a very important part of the Gospel. In addition to the above, what is evil is often subjective. If God were to stop every instance of evil then would we have a monarchy or a democracy? Some would argue a democracy, others a monarchy; whichever system God put in place, some people would consider it an evil. All individuality would be lost if God stopped every instance of evil, but this would be necessary if God stopped all gratuitous evil. Thus, by logical necessity (since God is consistent), if he is to allow free will then he must allow for gratuitous evil.

The above argument makes sense and, in my opinion, is a very solid theodicy. Yet I’m left feeling incomplete with it. In other words, what I have offered above is the best intellectual response that exists to the problem of evil, but it’s not satisfying. That’s not to say it’s wrong or that atheism has finally won; all the problem of evil can do for atheists is prove that an internal contradiction exists with Christianity, likewise the lack of a satisfying answer doesn’t mean the answer given is wrong. Rather, I think my answer isn’t satisfying because I’m asking the wrong question and approaching this issue with the wrong method.

I, and many others, aren’t really asking “Why does God allow evil?” We’re asking why he doesn’t stop it, specifically why doesn’t he stop the most egregious evils, yet in the Bible we see him stopping other evils. This is the wrong question to ask because we’re asking for specifics from an individual. We often forget that God is not some abstract concept that we study, but an actual person. Thus, when he acts, he has reasons for acting and sometimes doesn’t want those reasons known, or sometimes those reasons cannot be known. While some may roll their eyes (as I did) at the whole “his ways are higher,” it does make sense for specific evils and why he’d stop some and not others. Just as an infant cannot understand why his parents force this horrible mushy substance into his mouth, so too are we incapable of understanding why God acts the way he does in certain situations; it’s not that he purposefully hides it from us, it’s that by nature we’re incapable of understanding.

Yet, even this leaves me unsatisfied. Why do horrendous evils still occur? These evils are seemingly superfluous; certainly if God had a reason for allowing them we would eventually discover the reason, even if it took many generations to discover it. Yet, there are ancient evils that still baffle our minds. Here we are, a few generations removed from the Holocaust and rather than gaining clarity and seeing why God allowed it, we’re ending up with deniers of the Holocaust, celebrants, and we’re even more confused as to why it happened than we were when we first discovered it. While God’s ways are mysterious and we won’t always understand the specifics, I’m not sure this is a good answer, even if it is the right one. That is to say, while the answer is true, I’m not sure it works as an answer to the real question in the problem of evil (“Why doesn’t God just stop evil?”).

Ultimately, this points to the wrong method in answering the problem of evil. We often approach the problem of evil as an academic problem, something we see on paper that can be solved, and we especially do this in the West. But the problem of evil has only become academic because it really exists in our own lives first. We contemplate “why evil” long before we learn how to read, long before we gain critical thinking. Job was capable of questioning why God would allow evil without the aid of David Hume or Epicurus. A young girl who loses a parent (or both parents) can question the goodness of God without ever being introduced to the complex debates on theodicy. In other words, this is an existential problem long before it becomes an intellectual problem; in fact, I would argue that it’s primarily an existential problem with only the logical problem of evil (how can God and evil co-exist) composing an intellectual part.

Yet, if we pull back from the issue of evil for one second we’ll see that this is how almost all problems are concerning the questions that matter. Where do we come from? What is our purpose? Where are we going? These are primarily existential questions, not intellectual ones (they can be handled intellectually, but are then incomplete). We’ve been blinded to this because prior to Descartes and, really, Gettier, we adopted a Platonic way of understanding the world and our understanding of the world. Plato believed that our knowledge came form interacting with the ideal forms, which then translated down to this earth. Descartes also treated knowledge as an intellectual practice. In other words, every form of epistemology (save for one) that have existed in the Western world has placed an emphasis on the intellect, the mind, the nous. Even postmodernism or experimental forms of knowledge that place an emphasis on experience still, at their base, rely on the intellect (even if they later devalue it to the subjective).

Is it no wonder then that we’re woefully ill-prepared to answer the problem of evil? The problem of evil strikes every aspect of our existence, yet the epistemology we approach it with only does so from one aspect of our existence. This would explain why the answers given in any theodicy (save for Greater Good theodicies) make sense and work, but are still unsatisfying; it’s not that the answers are wrong, it’s that they’re incomplete.

In order to take on the task of providing a full theodicy, however, we first have to develop a new epistemology that addresses knowledge as gained and interpreted through every aspect of our being. Such a theodicy does exist (it’s implicit within the Early Church teachings and some Russian philosophers), but hasn’t really been systematized. In other words, while these works exist in English, the concepts really haven’t been translated. Such a teaching is still lost on the modern world and while touched upon by a few Russian thinkers (Pavel Florensky, Ivan Vasilevich Kireevsky, Vladimir Sergeevish Soloviev, to name a few), it’s difficult for Westerners to understand exactly what they’re teaching.

How I wish I could offer up this new epistemology, one that I think would work to give a more complete theodicy, but I haven’t really developed this epistemology or worked through it. I merely point all of this out to show that I think we’re approaching theodicy in an incomplete manner. If we’re approaching theodicy with an incomplete answer, then we need to stop exacerbating the problem by trying to use a failed method and revisit some of our more basic philosophies. While I think we can deal with the logical/intellectual problem of evil, that problem is ultimately superficial; no one quotes Hume at the death of a child, yet everyone questions God in such an instance. We can use Plantinga’s defense (or even better defenses) when in a debate with an atheist, but we can’t use it when counseling a man who’s been diagnosed with cancer. This means that while the free will defense, or other theodicies, are true, they’re inadequate and incomplete. But we can’t complete them with our current methods or epistemologies, we need something new. But who knows if or when that’ll ever come about.

So I leave this post not with answers, but with more questions. What will this new epistemology look like? Will it work? What will its ramifications be? Most importantly, is it true and we’ve simply ignored it for all these years? These are answers I do not have and may not have for many years. Thus, my apologies for introducing an even bigger problem to the debate, but I find it necessary.


What (Some) Atheists Just Don’t Seem to Get

In all the commotion from the other day, while most of the comments simply proved my point that many of the new atheists are incapable or unwilling to behave in a civil manner, some of the comments did stick out. Aside from the theme of belittling me (and let’s be honest, even if I had multiple degrees from prestigious institutions, I would still be treated as a buffoon because many of the commenters are intellectual bigots who are unwilling to face those who happen to hold different beliefs), one common theme emerged; believing in God simply cannot be rational, ever, at all, unless evidence is produced for the existence of God. Next to this idea is that philosophy and science simply do not mix. Both of these ideas, however, are highly flawed.

What is meant by “evidence?” Certainly they have in mind something of the physical sort that we would use in scientific experiments. If this is what we mean by “evidence” and “proof” then let me say upfront that no, I cannot prove the existence of God. But before any atheists begin to celebrate and proclaim “Mission Accomplished™” we should first look to see if knowledge is dependent upon such stringent requirements.

The philosophy mentioned above is a type of epistemology that could be called scientism, or empiricism, or positivism, or something along those lines (I refuse to nail it down to one epistemic theory due to the variation of comments that were left). For some of these atheists, science serves as the only measure of knowledge (that which can be reproduced or investigated physically). For others, they hold onto a form of empiricism by stating that only what can be seen can be known. At the base of whatever epistemic systems these atheists follow is the idea that something must be physically proven to exist; but does such a system accurately reflect the real world?

For instance, can I – utilizing the methods of science or physical evidence – prove that I exist or that I am currently conscious (not dreaming)? I could point to the fact that I am currently aware of the fact that I’m conscious, but this would be a circular way of thinking. In fact, the philosopher Paul Boghossian wrote in his book The Fear of Knowledge,

“Not every belief needs to be supported by some independent item of information that would constitute evidence in its favor: some beliefs are intrinsically credible or self-evident…What non-circular evidence could one adduce, for example, for the belief that one is currently conscious?” (117)

I would tend to agree with Boghossian that some beliefs are simply known a priori or are self-evident. That I am awake is a self-evident belief that doesn’t need any evidence nor can it have any evidence. In other words, while evidence is required for some beliefs – such as beliefs learned via experience – evidence is not a necessary requirement for knowledge. Of course, if evidence isn’t necessary for all knowledge then could it be true that evidence isn’t needed in order to rationally believe in God?

Some might argue that belief in God isn’t self-evident or an a priori belief. After all, all cultures at all times simply accept that they are awake and do exist, but they may differ on what type of God exists, if there are multiple gods, or if there are any gods. From here they would argue that we must therefore supply evidence for the belief in God.

Even in this case, however, the argument doesn’t make much sense. For instance, math is an abstract that lacks physical evidence (that it can be physically demonstrated at is more basic levels is a far cry different from having a physical form that we can observe). Certain rules of logic are abstracted, yet we know them to be true (such as the law of non-contradiction). Even our ability to put two items together is an immaterial reality, but one that we rely upon (i.e. there is nothing intrinsic in the number 6 that causes us to understand that when added to 1 we will gain 7; the act of addition cannot be physically examined, but we know it is true nonetheless).

When it comes to the existence of God, then, the lack of evidence isn’t sufficient to say that such a belief is irrational. Rather, one would have to show how a belief in God is properly irrational or how one lacks substantial reasons for believing in God. Again, one couldn’t turn around and say, “Well there’s no evidence” as the presence of evidence has no bearing on whether or not something is rational. Furthermore, if one can demonstrate from current evidence that it’s possible for God to exist, or merely that naturalism cannot account for something within the physical universe (such as a finite beginning to energy and matter, the existence of consciousness, and so on) then by default theism would be true, or at the very least highly plausible (due to this being a disjunctive problem, if one possibility is known to be false then the other is necessarily true).

It is this problem of epistemology that most atheists, specifically scientists, just don’t seem to get. When confronted with it, the default answer is, “Well I’m a scientist so I deal with facts and physicality.” This may be true, but it’s a poor excuse. For instance, if a woman tells a mathematician, “I love you,” he doesn’t say, “Can you provide the mathematical formula for your love? After all, I’m a mathematician so I only deal with numbers and formulas.” Likewise, saying, “I’m a scientist” doesn’t excuse someone from a faulty epistemology; philosophy will always reign supreme over science because ideas guide how we gain evidence and how we interpret evidence. The only way philosophy can disappear is if people stop thinking or having ideas while acting; since the interpretation of evidence requires thinking people, philosophy will always reign supreme.

Since the above is true, this means that science can never be divorced from philosophy. Thus, while the scientific method is perfect when conducting scientific experiments, we must remember to leave it there and not apply it to the whole of life. Yes, science has brought us computers, but it doesn’t tell us how to use them. Or more appropriately, science has brought us modern medicine, but it doesn’t allow for any guidelines on how such knowledge is acquired. Nothing in science says, “Don’t use unwilling humans as test subjects.” Science is amoral on this point. Rather, it is philosophy and reason that put parameters around such actions. All of this should show that while science is absolutely necessary and a good thing, it is still a limited field and shouldn’t function as an entire epistemic system for how we look at the world.

In this entire post I have not offered an argument for the existence God because there is no need to. For one, this is a blog post and I highly doubt that a blog post would sufficiently cover the arguments for the existence of God. Secondly, and more importantly, until one can accept that the reasonability or plausibility of a thing is not contingent upon physical evidence then there can be no discussion about God (or about much of anything else for that matter, if we are consistent with such an arbitrary epistemology). Until one can get over one’s bias and accept that theism can be a rational belief even in the absence of evidence, then why attempt to argue for the existence of God? If one is holding onto a self-contradictory and impractical epistemology, then one is flawed from the get-go, so any further introduction of arguments would lose purpose. If one is unwilling to realize that science has a role, but isn’t a metanarrative for how we should view the world, then it is simply a waste of time to try to convince the person otherwise.

Epiphenomena or Those Pesky Facts that Don’t Fit Into Your Theory of the Conscious Experience of Reading Rollyvic’s Long Blog Titles

The other day one of my friends suggested I write a paper on epiphenomenalism (keep reading for definition).  Upon careful reflection, I decided he had made an excellent suggestion.  At this moment I can hardly think of a more relevant topic for our times.  After all, there is not a single person in the world today who has not personally encountered epiphenomena.  In fact, every human being exhibits and experiences epiphenomena every day of their lives.  Considering how integral epiphenomena are to our existence, you can easily understand why I was so eager to write about them.

I realize, at this point, you are seriously questioning my sanity; or, at least, my sobriety.  “I’ve never encountered epiphenomena before!” you exclaim, “this guy is nuts!”  However, I must caution you not to be too hasty.  If you would grant me but a few minutes of your time, I will not only explain what epiphenomena are, but will demonstrate why epiphenomena are important to you personally.

Epiphenomenalism is the subject of one of the most exciting fields of modern philosophy known as the philosophy of mind.  These days, the majority of philosophers and neurologists engaged in this field adhere to what is commonly known as metaphysical naturalism–the belief that only the physical/material world exists and that everything can be explained in terms of brute material processes.  The predominate theories of the mind reflect this attitude, as they attempt to explain the mind purely in physical terms.  To the dismay of many Christians, physicalist accounts of the mind completely exclude the traditional notion that human beings have a subsistent soul or that the mind is essentially immaterial.  For the physicalist, everything about the mind and human action can be explained in terms of material chemical processes.

To be sure, physicalist theories of the mind are capable of explaining a wide range of human behavior.  In the past twenty years, neurologists, operating on physicalist assumptions, have uncovered a vast amount of knowledge about the inner workings of the brain.  Thanks to their hard work, we now have a detailed understanding of the complex physical processes which take place in our brains and we understand how many of these processes correlate to our emotions and behavior.  Considering the vast amount of knowledge we have about the brain, and how much we can explain about the mind, in terms of physical processes, it is understandable that many philosophers still embrace metaphysical naturalism.  But, do physicalist theories account for everything we know about the mind?  Are there some facts which defy physical explanation?

According to J. P. Moreland, “a theory may explain some facts quite nicely, but there are [often] recalcitrant facts that doggedly resist explanation by a theory.  No matter what a theory’s advocate does, the recalcitrant fact just sits there and is not easily incorporated into the theory.”  In many cases, a recalcitrant fact, “provides falsifying evidence for the theory and some degree of confirmation for its rivals.”  The question facing us is this: are there any recalcitrant facts facing physicalist explanations of the mind?

The unavoidable answer is yes.  The recalcitrant fact facing physicalist theories of the mind which “doggedly resist explanation,” in spite of years of research, is consciousness.  In his book, The Conscious Mind, David J. Chalmers describes consciousness as being, “the subjective quality of experience:  what it is like to be a cognitive agent.”  Cognitive agents (e.g., human beings) do not experience reality in the third person–we experience reality in the first person.  Consciousness, therefore, is our first person experience of reality.  According to Chalmers, there are a wide variety of conscious experiences that we know about; these include, but are not limited to: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, taste, experiences of hot and cold, pain, mental imagery, conscious thought, emotions, and self identity.

There are a handful of philosophers who argue that consciousness is an illusion and that conscious states do not exist–but one can hardly take these arguments seriously.  Physicalists who “eliminate” the existence of consciousness offer no significant reason for doing so–aside from the fact that the existence of conscious mental states does not square well with their physicalist sensibilities.  Other’s have argued that consciousness is merely another physical phenomena–but this view is steadily falling out of vogue.  Moreland has identified at least four features of conscious mental states that are not shared by physical states:

  1. There is a raw qualitative feel or a “what it is like” to have a mental state such as pain.
  2. Many mental states have intentionality–ofness or aboutness–directed toward an object (e.g., a thought is about the moon).
  3. Mental states are inner, private and immediate to the subject having them.
  4. Mental states fail to have crucial features (e.g., spatial extension, location) that characterize physical states and, in general, cannot be described using physical language.

Consequentially, the existence of consciousness and the fact that conscious mental states are not physical has been a constant thorn in the side of physicalist theories of the mind.

Currently, the trend has been to acknowledge, rather begrudgingly, that conscious mental states exist, but to deny that they play any roll in human cognition.  This view is known as epiphenomenalism.  Epiphenomenal accounts of the mind avoid the problem of consciousness by ignoring it and giving conscious mental states a cool ambiguous title:  epiphenomenaThe Oxford Companion to the Mind, explains that epiphenomena are, “Phenomena that occur in association with, or are supervenient upon, a given set of events, yet supposedly are not caused by those events.  The term is applied particularly to the mind-brain problem.”  It seems, then, by renaming conscious mental states, epiphenomena, physicalists can continue pontificating their theories, without  having to deal with pesky recalcitrant facts like consciousness.  Oh, the joy’s of not having to face up to reality!

So, whenever you have a first-person experience of sight, taste, feel, or smell, whenever you have a first-person experience of emotions, have conscious thoughts, and use mental imagery, you are living proof that metaphysical naturalism has utterly failed to account for everything it is to be human.  Every time you exhibit epiphenomena, which is virtually every second of the day, you can take comfort in the fact that  you are not merely a mindless conglomeration of matter with no objective purpose.  You are a conscious cognitive agent with a rational mind, reflecting the beautiful image of your creator.