I mentioned to several folks recently that I have a list of things about which I need to write which is quickly outpacing my list of things I have written. For the most part, I prefer having written to actually writing…
Anyway, one of the subjects which has come up independently in a number of discussions to which I’ve been a party in the past month has been what is generally referred to in Philosophical circles as “The Problem of Evil.” I did a good bit of writing on this when I was in college, but I’m going to attempt to distill it down for folks who really don’t have the time or inclination to run all over the place reading Leibniz and Kant and Hume and Epicurus et al. It’s a big part of the story in The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and who knows how many other works of fiction as well–because it’s a big part of life.
Often the question comes up in some form of “How could bad things happen to good people if God actually existed?” Well, I’m not going to attempt to prove to you that a God exists. I’m not an atheist, nor an adherent of any organized religion–I’m basically a Deist, of sorts. The best way to examine the problem is to lay out a series of premises upon which the problem–and most of the manners of dealing with it–are based. So here goes:
- God exists.
- God is omnipotent.
- God is omniscient.
- God is omnibenevolent.
- Evil exists.
Atheists reconcile P5 by denying P1 (and thus P2-P4 as well). Thus, for them, the explanation is simply that Evil exists because there is no God.
There have been–and probably still are–religions which explain P5 by denying P4–saying that God is not all good. Many pagan religions saw God (or more usually, Gods) as a “mixed bag”–sort of like humans writ large–in that they could be both good and bad, often times by turns both generous and capricious.
Some religions explain it by denying P2–saying that although God is Good (affirming P1, P4, and P5), Evil exists because God does not have the power to prevent it, or sometimes, as in Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism, that there is an Evil God who prevents the Good God from eradicating Evil.
Some explain it by denying P3, sometimes via the “absent creator” explanation–that is, affirming P1, P2, P4, and P5, but saying that God doesn’t know Evil exists here on Earth, because he created us and went away, and no longer pays attention to us.
And, as crazy as it may sound to some folks, some deal with the problem by denying P5–saying that what we define as Evil isn’t actually evil–that in fact, if we could see things from God’s point of view, we would see that all these things are part of God’s plan, and will accomplish the greatest good. Sounds crazy, perhaps, but when people claim “It’s all for the best” or “It’s all part of God’s plan” and so forth, that’s essentially the course they’ve chosen.
My preferred explanation–and I claim no special knowledge here apart from having studied and thought about it a lot, and it seems the most reasonable explanation to me–is actually one which affirms ALL the premises above. Seems like that’d be contradictory, no?
The key to this explanation is simply Free Will.
If you have no choice–if you Can either do “A” or…well… You can only do “A”–you have no choice. And without choice, there is no free will. And without free will, we are merely automatons, wandering around, going thru the motions, and essentially accomplishing in a flawed and messy and inefficient way what could be done in a “better” way.
Now, the way I handle this is to attempt to put myself in the shoes of God. I know, blasphemy, I will be struck down, and go to hell, and have all my soft bits poked with sharp and flaming nasties for all eternity, etc. etc.
The best way I can think of to put myself in the creator’s shoes is to imagine the creator as the greatest and most benevolent and wise parent.
Now, if God were a “helicopter parent” and a “tiger mommy” and so forth, he (or she, or it, or whatever your preferred pronoun may be) would probably not be a fan of free will, and would present us with only option “A” forever and ever. We would all learn to play the violin, whether or not we wanted to–indeed, the very idea of not wanting to do so would never be allowed to occur to us. We would all keep everything immaculately clean and orderly at all times, we would all march around quietly and in orderly fashion at all times, we would all wear the same uniform… Get the picture?
Now, consider your truly wise parent. They want the best for their children. They don’t like to see their children hurt, or make bad decisions, etc. But they also know that if their children are ever to learn what is best, and to mature mentally and emotionally, and grow as people, and so on…they will have to make some bad decisions. They will get scuffed up and hurt sometimes. The child who never falls down is the child who never learns to walk–because they’ve never even attempted anything beyond crawling. Nothing teaches: “Hot! Danger!” like the burned finger.
Wise parents recognize that no amount of yelling and screaming and rule-making and so forth will actually teach the children anything but to yell and scream and attempt to impose their will on others.
Now, to compare the horrible evils which occur on Earth to a parent who allows their child to get a minor burn makes God sound like a complete psycho. And yes, we wouldn’t think much of a parent who didn’t step in to prevent serious harm coming to their child–there is a big difference between a parent who knowingly allows their child to burn their finger by touching the car on a hot day outside, and one who allows the child to pull a pot of scalding water on themselves.
But, if there is in fact a life beyond this one–not the cliché Heaven so many Christians claim to believe in, in which everyone sits around for eternity praising God and playing the harp–but perhaps bigger and more complex challenges elsewhere… If you consider that a possibility, then perhaps as awful as these things are to us with our child’s understanding of the universe, they might not be all that big a thing when you consider it in light of another existence; a larger existence.
The only way to determine if someone is really trustworthy is to trust them. The only way to determine if someone is really responsible is to give them responsibility. And, at the risk of inducing many of my Browncoat friends to start quoting Firefly, You don’t truly know who someone is until you’ve seen them under the effects of serious pressure.
It’s easy to claim you’re not a cheater, but do you really know until someone has attempted to seduce you? It’s easy to not be a thief when you’ve never wanted for anything. It’s easy to not be a drunk when you’ve never had a drink. It’s easy to say “winning the lottery wouldn’t change me” if you’ve never won. It’s easy to not be a murderer when you’ve never been angry or scared enough and in a position to do something about it. I am reminded of a Warren Zevon tune: “You’re a Whole Different Person When You’re Scared.”
Some of the hippie-dippy new-age types might have it right after all: it may well be that we were put here to learn things like caring for each other, and love, and integrity, and other such things. Perhaps only those of us who’ve learned these lessons have what it takes–and can be trusted–to take on much larger tasks elsewhere. Earth may be the cosmic nursery–and those of us who learn to play well with the other kids, and demonstrate responsibility and integrity, and let’s call it “first order wisdom” eventually leave the nursery, graduating to tasks which require those things. And maybe those of us who don’t will be recycled in place–repeating nursery school until we eventually learn those lessons.
But again, I claim no special revelations here–for all I know, we could all be playing a cosmic Role Playing Game by mutual agreement on some other plane of existence. Seems like that makes about as much sense as anything else.
But–a sort of Pascal’s Wager for you all, if you will: Would it be such a bad idea to live your life as if the nursery idea were possibly true?
I’m not saying anyone has to believe in a God–in general or any specific one. I’m not saying anyone has to believe the idea is absolutely true at all. But if you operate on the assumption that it–or something like it–is a possibility, then it seems to me you won’t go too far wrong.
Or, as it seems I read somewhere once: Live your life as if, somewhere in the distant future, they develop the technology to resurrect the dead, and decide to throw the greatest party in the universe for the remainder of eternity, and they are going thru their database of everyone who ever lived and deciding who should be resurrected and invited. Do you want to be on that list? “Do we want to invite this guy?” “No, he’s a dick.” “He’s not a Hitler or a Mao or a Stalin…” “Yeah, but he’s still a dick. leave his dead ass down there.”