Friday, January 31, 2014

Theodicy is Really a Contraction of Theological Idiocy

The problem of evil is something of a troubling issue for Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology, and it also stands as one of the more common arguments used by atheists to raise doubts against the theist position. To be honest, I do think a lot of atheists misuse this argument, or at least fail to follow through on it properly. A lot of times, you tend to see Epicurus' famous quote which concisely essays the argument or something along the lines of bringing up a minor counterexample and declaring checkmate.  Really, the problem of evil (or its corollary, the problem of suffering) does not actually have the power to disprove a god, nor does a "solution" to the problem have the capacity to prove it.  Rather, the attack that the problem of evil poses is that it undermines the logical consistency of the theology itself, which at best shows that if there is a god, it's not the god of particular religion X.  Theodicy, for those who aren't familiar, is basically an entire field of philosophy dedicated to the defenses against the problems of evil/suffering which aim to show that a theistic belief system can still be consistent with the existence of evil in the world.

Notably, I did limit myself to Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythology here.  For a lot of older religions, there really is no "problem" of evil/suffering to begin with.  Hinduism and all of its offshoots (e.g. Buddhism, Jainism, etc.) have concepts of reincarnation and karma which explain evil/suffering someone experiences as a result of past evil/suffering they caused potentially in prior lives as well as purporting that in the long run, good and evil, pleasure and pain, etc. come out balanced such that the game of life is a zero sum game.  Hellenistic and Norse mythologies tend to imbue their deities with the same character flaws and emotions that humans have, and they rarely ever act in interests other than their own.  No one god was fundamentally good or evil in an absolute sense.  In short, these religions have no "problem" of evil and/or suffering in the same sense because the presence of evil is something that is expected, making it quite consistent with those theologies.  Judeo-Christian mythology, on the other hand, is faced with a problem because its monotheism also means referring to its god in absolutes and infinites.  Thereby writing themselves into a corner.

At the same time, what makes a theodicy particularly difficult to deal with is that it has no real requirement to make a truth claim.  Rather, the problem of evil is one which poses a problem internal logical validity, meaning that it is the sort of thing that could really tear down Biblical theology on its own terms, even if you operate on a frame in which you assume to be true the very things that Christianity/Judaism/Islam actually posits.  As such, the arguments themselves are not seeking to make an argument for god's existence per se, but rather making an argument to try and maintain a facade of internal logical coherence for the theology itself.  This is why the existence of evil and suffering are called a "problem" for these religions because it holds the risk of defeating the belief system even without having to show any specific refutation.

It is easy to take an argument like the free will defense against the problem of evil/suffering, and point out that a god which will let the free will of individuals run its course in life and only mete out punishment after death is epistemically indistinguishable from a deistic god or, for that matter, a god that simply does not exist.  This is a perfectly appropriate argument to make, should the discussion topic be about the truth of the belief system itself.  However, the free will defense does not have to seek to make the argument that god is real, but merely that the particular god being posited does not have characteristics which are inconsistent with actions connected to him (whether in reality or in myth), thereby making the overall theology internally coherent.  Of course, in this particular goal, it does have a few more serious failings.  Number one is the fact that the free will defense does not hold up for the examples within the mythology itself which show that his respect for the will of the individual is not always upheld.  Number two is the fact that it does not adequately show by what standards the respect for free will (in a general sense) is really consistent with the condition of being perfectly just or absolutely benevolent or merciful.  Even for a person who, by their own will, acts in morally good ways, there are often instances which hold a plurality of moral choices, which means that even a morally good choice may not necessarily be morally optimal.  Furthermore, if someone makes morally bad choices, what constitutes a good mechanism for consequences?  If you wish to argue that your god's punishments for a rapist after said rapist dies are "perfect", then it begs the question of why it is "perfect" to do so after death and not during life or even to subvert the rapist's will before the act is committed (which according to the theology has happened before).  The Qur'an even posits that Mohammed's own will was subverted by Allah on several occasions (mainly those in which he overturned then mainstream norms).  If the prophet himself isn't off limits, why should anyone else be?  If you are to say that Yahweh/Allah's justice can only be mete out after a person's death, then that puts a limitation on his capacity to act, which violates the "all-powerful" aspect ascribed to him.  Of course, the counterpoint here is that "all-powerful" is limited to all things which are logically possible, so perhaps you could argue that the perfect justice applies to the soul in isolation, which requires death (or is at least most efficient after death) in order to separate the soul from the body.  But that only brings the question back to what makes it a good thing in the first place?  Thirdly, and this is the most generic problem with the free will defense, is that it even if you accept it entirely, it only deals with evil and suffering that are the product of will.  It does not do anything to explain natural suffering or suffering that is entirely inscrutable or accidental.  You can put things like rape and murder on free will, but you can't put things like cars hydroplaning on a wet road or ebola on free will.

The free will defense is more common among "professional" apologists, but it's probably not the most common you'll ever come across as an atheist.  Augustinian theodicy (i.e., the "sin" and/or righteous suffering defense) is still the most common, and the weakest.  It's probably the weakest mainly because his arguments (and all of those variations that Aquinas put forth as well) focus exclusively on the evils within scripture itself.  It is mainly about the argument that it would be unjust, and therefore malevolent to let the ills that people carry out persist, and therefore demanding justifiable killing, war, and suffering as a punishment.  It is the most popular theodicy because it requires the least thought.  Why was there so much snow in the Midwest this year?  D'uh!!  It's because Eve ate the fruit! Sin, man, sin!  Why did Hurricane Sandy happen?  Oh, well that's because gay people exist!  It's sin!  Fukushima?  Sin.  Income inequality?  Sin.  9/11?  Sin.  Why did Bob's kitten have to die?  Sin.  It's easy, no?  I once hoped that it was only the uneducated troglodytes of the world who use this sort of argument, but sadly that isn't actually the case.  Those who operate on at least earning degrees in ludicrously bigoted claptrap will try and bring some actual scriptural quotes into the picture and ultimately say the same thing.  However, the scripture's treatment of the punishments for sin varies rather wildly in scale ranging from entire cities slaughtered for the sins of the few to being killed for picking up firewood on the wrong day of the week.  It's really difficult to argue that all of this falls on the same scale and is equally weighted in sin, or that sin is effectively specific enough to really measure how these wild swings in treatment are really justifiable.  That too, while it is an easy one for the evangelical to pick up because it makes it easy to just put everything on sin and the fall, it doesn't really succeed into putting anything into perspective, nor does it really do a good job of defining its terms.  It's just too broad of a brush trying to represent too much color with a single shade of paint.  Because of this, the only way it really works and is remotely passable as a defense is if you can blindly accept the notion of sin as well as Divine Command model of morality...  trying to go that route opens up one too many cans of worms.  Still, I can see why Augustine and Aquinas liked it -- their approaches to theology necessitated that "God" is always blameless for all things, that "God" intended perfection and it was people who screwed it up.  Islam, of course, multiplies this problem further because it not only tries to make Allah blameless and perfect, but Mohammed as well.  This, as many have pointed out with the examples of Aisha and Zaynab, his ownership/sale/trade of slaves, his treatment of adversaries...  well, it takes some doing.

As far as I can tell, the strongest theodicy I've come across (note that this is a relative term) is the light-and-shadow argument.  As far as I know, this originates as a theodicy with Irenaeus, though it's much older as a more generic philosophical musing.  The long and short of it is that there is no way to appreciate goodness without evil.  If there is no evil, then all that is good necessarily becomes impossible to determine as good. This only creates an apparent conflict, though, with the "all-good" aspect applied to god, but it is worth noting that said perfections only apply to god, and not necessarily his creation.  It does beg the question of why a perfect god would create something imperfect, but this very theodicy paints a picture that a certain amount of imperfection, evil, etc. stands as necessary evils in order to bring to light the significance of an absolute perfection that is what the god is supposed to be.  i.e. if the world is already perfect, nobody would have a need to believe in any god, and with these 3 major religions, belief in their specific deity is the single most important thing of all...  which says a thing or two about how self-centered and megalomaniacal this "perfect" deity is.  Hick developed this theodicy further with the concept of epistemic distance (i.e. the difficulty of the knowability of a god), and evil is the way you make this distance apparent, and the more suffering you experience, the more clearly this distance will appear.  This metaphor kind of bares out when you consider that it's those who have the hardest lives who are most likely to believe.  That would also be true whether or not god is real, so again, you have an argument with no power of proof.  Nonetheless, this theodicy is a little more powerful because of the fact that it does effectively cover all types of evil and suffering.  At the same time, because of the total lack of specificity, it does mean that it doesn't really target any particular class of suffering.  That makes it hard to argue once you get into specifics.  It is true that the existence of evil means we appreciate good when it occurs.  I've brought up this very point in my treatise on karma.  It is a good thing to realize that evil and suffering exist in that it drives us towards positive change, but that doesn't mean that the evil and suffering itself is inherently a good thing on its own.  From the perspective of a creator god, how is it a good thing just to allow a certain measure of evil just so that your creation can appreciate good?  How do you measure what amount of suffering is optimal to get the appropriate level of appreciation?  And what is it that makes this a necessary evil?  Therein lies the real problem.  You can't really make it inherently good for a god to create and bring forth evil and suffering on its own unless you can establish that there is a more important purpose for this...  but the only purpose that these theologies can bring forth is that awareness of the suffering, awareness of our own imperfection, awareness of our own evils makes us want to turn towards an image of perfection, which is what god is meant to represent.  If that's the overarching goal that makes the evil and suffering in the world a necessary evil, then the validity of this theodicy rests entirely on establishing the truth of the theology itself.  Technically, you could say that without that, it is still internally consistent in the theology itself because the theology does place total faith in Yahweh/Allah as the "prime directive" as it were.  However, without establishing that that actually is a serious moral concern, what you're left with is a proof that the god of these religions is every bit as selfish, jealous, and self-aggrandizing as he is criticized to be by those who have bothered to read these holy books (which more or less defeats the whole "perfect" attribute).  If, at the very least, you want to show that it isn't just about "Him", you have to move into showing that worship of god actually is a value that merits the insertion of evil and the conflict between good and evil into the world.  But that ultimately means you have to prove your belief system.  After all, how can you possibly make the worship of a god intrinsically valuable in any way unless you can show that god is real?  In the interest of trying to make the theology seem internally consistent and coherent overall, you end up creating a trap where you have to vindicate the entire belief system in order for it to be coherent...  and to be frank, no one will ever succeed in doing that for Judeo-Christian-Islamic faiths or any other extant system of belief that relies on faith.

Before I finish, I want to note that I didn't quite say that Hinduism and its offshoots have no problem of suffering, but merely that it doesn't have one in the same sense that these Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism had.  It has an entirely different "problem" related to suffering and evil -- a practical one.  And in some ways, I consider it to be the worst of them all, really.  Theodicies merely result in pontificating on the subject of evil at worst...  Hinduism on the other hand, pushes it as a moral duty.  If you go to India, you might find that a lot of even fairly modern places don't seem to have access ramps for wheelchairs or facilities/services for the blind and deaf.  You will find still a considerable degree of caste bigotry and status-based mistreatment.  You will still find communities being given the shaft in access to basic goods and services (e.g. water) in favor of those considered "more worthy."  These aren't oversights or lack of enforcement of principles or anything of the sort.  These are willful efforts.  The argument that people give for this is not that it isn't cruel or that it isn't heartless, but that the cruelty is the point.  The people who suffer or are disabled or are born into low castes are experiencing that because they did something wrong in a previous life.  The machinations of karma have put these people into such dire straits in order to clear the taint of sin from their souls, and trying to alleviate that could mean that the soul is not sufficiently washed of its moral complicity.  Within this construct, the cycle of reincarnation is considered the greatest of torture, and the end goal is to equalize pain and pleasure such that you finally achieve moksha (release) from that cycle.  The belief is that if you disrupt someone's fated suffering, you could delay their release, and thereby force them to take more lives than they might otherwise have to take.  Good thing Mother Teresa never actually helped anyone who was suffering.  Of course, that raises the question of how you know that you were not fated to aid someone in trouble?  How do you know that the amount of suffering that someone experiences is just right or too much or too little?  If everybody in the country who lost a limb or is crippled by disease gets a little extra help, how many more lives will they have to go through?  It might be a bit tooting my own horn to quote myself here, but I really have a hard time finding a better one to sum up the problem with this attitude towards suffering than this one that I used in my undergrad days --
People [who subscribe to this mode of Karma] believe that the disabled and downtrodden deserve their lot in life because of something completely unverifiable that happened at an indeterminate time that, in an undefined way, affects an unproven ethereal embodiment of peoples’ personalities; and this is so obviously true that we should base a nation's policies on it.
Right. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?