Ethics and the Third Person--the argument from evil

Introductory note from Jason Pratt: I am here appending in several parts some excerpts from an unpublished book of mine (not CoJ incidentally), originally composed late 99/early 2000, wherein I work out a progressive synthetic metaphysic. The topic of this Section of chapters is ethical grounding; and in the first several entries I analyzed crippling problems along the three general lines of ethical explanation, including general theism. After this though, I returned to the argument I had already been developing for several hundred (currently unpublished) pages, and used those developed positions to begin solving the philosophical dilemmas I had covered in previous entries. Along the way, I ran into a potential problem last seen back in my (unpublished) Section Three; but slotting that problem into my developing argument allowed me to discover that I should believe that a 3rd Person of God exists. Having covered some introductory inferences regarding the 3rd Person's relationship to the other two Persons in the substantial unity of God, I proceeded to consider some preliminary issues in regard to requirements for personal interaction between the 3rd Person and each of us, as persons; and I inferred that an encouragement to avoid accepting what we perceive to be contradictory, would be the minimum communication we could expect from the Holy Spirit. After considering what an intention to foster contradictions would involve, first for God and then for myself, I reached the topic of enacted human sin; and in my most recent entry I began considering the consequences of my sin.

This entry concludes chapter 36, "the consequences of sin", in my original text. It's the longest entry I've put up in a while, so be warned ahead of time. Some side commentary I would otherwise relegate to footnotes, is included below in [Footnote] text. Where I thought a footnote would be too disruptive to represent in my main text, I have put it into the comments below instead; this will be marked where so.

.......[excerpt begins here]

I am now in a position to explain why I, myself, am not remotely disconcerted by the anti-theistic argument from evil.

For many people, this is a powerful argument, if not against a supernaturalistic God altogether (strictly speaking it couldn’t be against that anyway), then at least against any kind of ethical God Who also holds an ontological position traditionally accepted by proponents of various religious theisms (primarily Judaism, Christianity and Islam in modern times). The problem then, is not with God or God’s supernatural character per se, but with the combination of these properties plus ethicality. Eliminating one or more of the properties, eliminates the problem--or so it seems to many people.

Thus, eliminating the morality (tacitly or explicitly) could leave the theism and the ontological claims in place--but not a trinitarian nature. Even some Christian theists, accepting the argument, but wanting to keep the ethicality (and the trinitarianism?), are led to abandon one or more of the ontological tenets--they will deny God’s omnipotence, or God’s omniscience, or God’s omnipresence. Some theists regress into an emergent pantheism, a naturalistic theism where the system of Nature, as the Independent Fact, is slowly becoming God--thus it starts out amoral, and slowly ‘learns’ morality. [Footnote: Why it would be learning to be more ‘moral’ seems to be something of a mystery. I will add here that I am not entirely against the notion of Nature becoming progressively sentient and learning to be moral; but I certainly don’t have to be a naturalistic and/or emergent theist in order to accept this possibility!]

Furthermore, I can understand why the argument would be so influential to so many people. Injustice and suffering are daily parts of life for many of us, perhaps even for all of us; and highly important to us (myself included!) when they happen. Since these are so readily obvious and at hand, it isn’t unreasonable for people to begin with evil and tragedy and grief. [Footnote: this in itself refutes the facetious attempts of some skeptics, even ones who ought to know better, to paint theists, Christian or otherwise, as if we thought we were living in some kind of bouncy rainbow vacuum where nothing hurtful or scary or unfair ever happens to us or to those we love. This ridiculous tactic becomes even more worthless against a Christian, of all people: the guy nailed up there on the giant plus sign reminds us every Sunday that Bad Things Happen To Even The Best People, in case we somehow manage to forget.]

Or again, even if an ethical theism manages to be proposed first (for after all someone has to go first in an argument), sooner or later (and probably sooner) the evident power and prevalence of injustice has to be and ought to be raised as part of any responsible accounting of the situation; and when that happens, the ethical theism may be so incomplete, or so incompletely established, that it becomes proportionately vulnerable to this objection--which is likely to be the first objection, even if not the first ground for decision. [Footnote: it certainly doesn’t help when the ethical theism being proposed turns out to not be even ethical in character! See chapter 31 for an example of this. [Reprinted in this entry here.]]

"If God really existed, and/or really was the sort of God you say He is," I am occasionally told, "then evil as we all recognize it would not exist. Yet, it does. Therefore, He must not exist, one way or the other."

I think there is a reasonably noble attitude that can (and I am willing to believe often does) underlie that argument.

But, because of the way in which I have approached the topic of evil, this argument is in no position to undercut my conclusions.

First, I am already entirely certain on other far more primary grounds that God nevertheless does exist (or at least that, as a question of logical responsibility, I should believe He exists), and has the character and characteristics this anti-theistic argument attacks. That doesn’t mean I have to discount or disrespect the factual reality of injustice--on the contrary, I am in the process of factoring it strongly into my developing argument! But this factoring will be done within the shape of the metaphysic I have been slowly and carefully developing throughout the course of this book.

A little more bluntly and directly: in order for the anti-theistic argument to have any chance of success at all, first I have to presume that I can actively evaluate the argument as a responsible agent. Once I do that, however, I discover there are corollaries to this presumption which... well... eventually lead me here! (Not even counting another few hundred pages of preliminary field-leveling consideration that I can, and do, engage in, before I begin considering that topic! [Currently these arguments aren’t posted in journal entries.])

So, while this won’t necessarily be true for other analysts, I am going to be a supernaturalistic trinitarian theist before I get to the argumentative threat of injustice anyway. Even if I started from injustice, sooner or later I would be looking to discern logical priorities in argumentation, and once I do that... then here I will be again. At which point, though I won’t (and shouldn’t) discount the reality of injustice, I will be (and am) slotting it into a coherent, developing, progressive metaphysic, in light of positions developed through identified logical priorities.

Second: I also notice that for this argument to have even a chance of working, the anti-theist must be making a judgment based on his adequate (and reasonably accurate) perception of an objectively real and foundational standard. It must not be merely his (or our) own wishful thinkings nor an irrationally produced delusion.

But such a standard must be ethical in quality at its source; and thus requires an eternally foundational relationship of Person-to-Person.

If the God Whom I think exists does not exist, then that judgment of the 'evil' quality of behaviors cannot be objectively grounded [Footnote: not even the objectivist secular attempt--see the relevant entries here and here for why]; but then this particular anti-theistic argument cannot possibly lead to a valid conclusion that God does not exist.

If God, the orthodox trinitarian God, does exist, then the evil, the intentional misbehavior of derivative personal entities that gives this argument its strength, can also exist; but then the argument using the existence of such evil against God's existence or character, must nevertheless be reaching a false conclusion.

Ironically, it takes God's existence as a Trinty in Unity, for such an argument against God's existence-and/or-character to have any real strength. [See first comment below for extended footnote here.]

Third, and perhaps much more personally to the point: I know, and am willing to admit, that in my own degree I have on occasion willingly contributed to the injustice and sinful hatred which, when recognized, give this anti-theistic argument such apparent power.

So, you think such an argument has some force, do you? Very well: what was God supposed to do with me, to prevent me from adding to the evil? Or do you think that a little evil on my part would be okay, but a lot of evil makes the difference?

No--the principle works in principle, or not at all. My own 'little' evils must be part and parcel of your argument against God.

So, what was God supposed to do, to prevent me from acting in such a way? Not create me at all? And if not me, then how many others? Everyone except yourself? Are you sinless? If not, then should God not have created you, either, and so not have given you the opportunity and ability to breach the most fundamental of principle relationships in reality? Or, would 'you' be better off if 'you' (per se) did not exist? But how can that be?! Yet if God allows you your freedom, shall He not allow others? And if He allows other people freedom--other people like me--how shall He be absolutely certain of preventing me from mistreating you? By making me a sock-puppet? Then I am not 'me'! Shall He nix every potentially harmful physical effect that might flow from my intentions? I have news for you: that would not stop my evil, for the possibility of my actively evil intent would remain, and could still be enacted, even if no notable result, no suffering, followed in the physical world.

Oh, so perhaps it is not the evil per se that powers the argument, but the suffering that exists!--the suffering that forces reactions and so reduces us as persons, whether that suffering is pain or pleasure. [Footnote: Proponents of this anti-theistic argument do not always remember that pleasurable suffering may in its own way be even worse than pain; for at least pain allows us to know that something is wrong. But pleasurable suffering is addictive and encourages whatever is happening wrongly to continue and increase. I don’t hold a forgetting or ignorance of this, against such proponents; but I do recognize it myself in a careful accounting.]

The argument then becomes:

"If God existed and/or had the characteristics you say He does, He would take more steps to minimize or even eradicate suffering. But suffering exists, and in great quantities. Therefore..., etc."

I do feel the same way, too, on occasion--including when I suffer. So I can sympathize with the emotional power of this revision of the argument.

But then I am obligated to ask: how am I, who am non-omniscient, supposed to know whether God has not in fact minimized suffering insofar as all His other plans allow room for?

There is no way I can possibly know this; I am equally certain that you cannot possibly know this, either. (Whereas, on the other hand, the argument to God I have already developed, gives me solid ground for trusting that God is in fact minimizing suffering insofar as all His other plans and intentions allow room for: a conclusion of principle that doesn’t require omniscient polling.)

The emotional power of the argument admittedly remains in force; but its logical validity requires us to be capable of knowing what God knows about the necessary interrelationships of everything in creation, so that we have a useful standard by which to validly draw such a conclusion.

This is impossible; consequently, the argument fails.

I presume (as I have said before [in a currently unpublished chapter]) that you, my sceptical reader, would not accept from me an argument for God's existence, based on my feelings of awe on a mountain or in a cathedral. So if we are down to discussing a mere feeling, no matter how noble in character, then I think the same principle must still hold: whatever credit this feeling reflects of you, it does not effectively ground the argument by itself.

But still: you may maintain (if you are someone such as I myself) that the suffering in our world cries out for a justice that you are not perceiving. And, have I not said that God shall never set aside either His justice or His love?

Do you, my reader, perhaps feel--or even think--that God should be held accountable in some fashion for this suffering? That He should actively pay for allowing you and me and other entities to introduce and maintain and propagate suffering in the world? That no matter how I juggle the bill, God ends up being responsible for the meal--and He should own up and take responsibility?

Do you think this?


I think you are quite correct. And I will ask you to remember it, later.

Meanwhile, if you do think this--and I imagine at bottom most honest sceptics who care about justice do think it, because I myself also think it!--then make sure your sauce cooking the Gander cooks my goose as well.

If you think God deserves to pay for setting up this situation--what do you think I, who am a sinner contributing to the situation, deserve?

Do I not also deserve to pay, for the contributions I have directly made to the misery of the world? What do I, a sinner unlike God, deserve?

Well, perhaps you are feeling a bit charitable toward me! Perhaps you will say that (unlike God??) I have excuses.

I think you are right: I do have excuses. And I think the excuses do 'excuse' me--as far as they go.

But, if I tell you that there have been times when I just flat decided to sin; that I can honestly look at myself and see at least one time when I had no mitigating excuse for my behavior, no explanation other than my willful intent to do what I knew to be wrong--

then, my reader, what do you say I deserve?

I will tell you what the logic of the position I have developed, requires that I deserve--not only what I deserve, but what I shall receive.

I have said it before already, and I will say it again now:

I deserve to die.

I must die.

I shall die.

Well... What else remains to be said?

Quite a lot, actually!--so on to the next chapter.

[Next up: sin and death.]

[A very abbreviated and incomplete summary of the several hundred pages of argument preceding these chapters, can be found in my July 4th essay The Heart of Freedom.]


Jason Pratt said…
This is a footnote comment I thought would be too long or otherwise unwieldy to represent in the text above; so I've ported it down here.

.......[footnote begins here]

The Independent Fact must be active and sentient (at least 1 Person); the IF must be self-existent and thus Self-Begetting/Begotten (at least 2 Persons, which also establishes the foundationally objective ethicalness of reality); the IF must be relating to us as Person to persons, so that we can have some perception of the ethical standard; and this relationship must take place within the overarching reality of God's self-existent existence (at least 3 Persons, with the Holy Spirit being God fully God, produced by the interaction of the 1st and 2nd Persons, and in at least basic communication with the spirits of derivative sentients such as us.)

In a double irony--or perhaps reassurance!--this conclusion implies that the anti-theistic Argument from Evil must still somehow have some real strength. I will examine the real and proper strength behind the argument, and its implications, soon.

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