Wednesday, January 05, 2005

From the Mail: Evil and Process Theism

Anthony Flood writes by e-mail:

A few comments on The Problem that had to surface in the aftermath of the tsunami. I summarize Burgess-Jackson’s point on my “problem of evil” page and elaborate upon it in several essays posted there: “155,000 dead, millions homeless and susceptible to death by infectious disease because God couldn't or wouldn't control a couple of tectonic plates.”

I believe that the existence/occurrence of excessive, nondisciplinary evil (which I define in those essays) refutes classical theism. I do not, however, believe that this refutation entails atheism. Classical theism vs. naturalistic atheism is a false alternative. Process theism, for example, as founded by Whitehead and developed in different ways by Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, David Ray Griffin (who explicitly calls himself a naturalistic theist; see his new Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith), and Lewis S. Ford (who identifies God with the activity of the future; see his Transforming Process Theism), affirms a creative, morally good God Who lures actual occasions––the ontological atomic units of the process cosmos––to their best end, which each occasion may refuse and substitute for it its own end. Actual occasions, according to this philosophy, form “societies,” and societies of societies, which exhaustively comprise the electromagnetic, atomic, chemical, biological, psychological, intellectual, rational, esthetic, and spiritual phenomena of our experience. God’s influence on them is “from the inside, out,” and operates on them as a final cause. God cannot “push” on them from the outside. So he cannot move a careening car out of the path of a child. Or hold two tectonic plates steady.

The argument that God cannot do such things is simply that he would if he could, because he is good (in that he loves the cosmos he brings into being––but not out of nothing, or wholly out of himself). God would not even be a good neighbor, let alone worthy of worship if he refrained from doing what you or I would spontaneously do in the face of an immediate danger to innocent bystander, even at some risk to ourselves. (The risk to God is zero, his knowledge of the facts immediate and total.)

BV: By the same token, classical theists can and do argue that there are constraints on divine power, not only logical constraints, but extralogical ones as well. Among the latter would be constraints deriving from free agency, including the free agency of fallen angels. How do you know that God could have prevented the tsunami? But I need to read the relevant materials on your site before saying any more about this.

The problem of evil is, or should be, a personally excruciating one, Bill, not an element in a forensic game. Excruciating: it should put us on the cross. Your reference to deciding and neutralizing and arguing to a draw has the aroma of institutional apologetics, from which nothing could be further from your purposes, as I understand them.

BV: You are reading something into my remarks that isn't there. I don't doubt that some of the philosophers you encountered at NYU and CUNY thought of philosophy as a mere game, but that's certainly not my view of it. And I think you'll agree that existentialist-type posturing also gets us nowhere. Both the attitude of the intellectual gamesman and that of the gushing existentialist who substitutes emotional appeals for rigorous argument are to be avoided.

You also know that I have no institutional stake in the outcome of any of these debates. I am not defending my way of filling my belly for the simple reason that philosophy depletes my belly: in plain English, costs me money. Nor am I defending any particular church or creed or, for that matter, professional or institutionalized philosophy. In fact, I have recently allowed my long-time membership in the American Philosophical Association to lapse -- in large part because of their unacceptable PeeCee mentality. Nothing of a mundane nature rides on the outcome of these debates, not tenure, promotion, money, or anything else. I do not attend any church.

My talk of neutralizing rather than refuting arguments reflects a fact that I think we all have to be honest enough to face up to, namely, that there are few if any compelling arguments in philosophy for substantive theses. Thus it borders on arrogance to speak of refuting the interlocutor's position.


I stand by my remarks on decision. At the end of the day, after all the dialectical smoke has cleared, one must de-cide what one will believe and how one will live. I was careful to point out that this is not a mere decision, a piece of fideistic willfulness a la Kierkegaard (although I am not being entirely fair to the Dane at the moment), but a decision based on careful thought. If you think you will ever find knock-down arguments that will force you into a position so that no element of leap or decision or will enters in -- then I wish you the best of luck. If you have a knock-down argument for a substantive philosophical thesis then send it to me and I will knock IT down.

When attempting to drive home my point on this terrible topic, I usually focus on a rape-murder of a particular child (e.g, Samantha Runnion http://www.thejoyfulchild.org/) to concentrate the mind of my fellow reflector wonderfully on what God’s alleged “refraint” amounts to in cases of excessive, nondisciplinary evil. Generalization tends to bevel the sharp edges of this problem. For now, and for some time to come it seems, the video feeds from Asia will serve my didactic purpose graphically. But there is something against which my arguments and illustrations are impotent.

I am utterly amazed by how many nominally God-fearing men and women pray that, say, they win the lottery, and thank him when they do, totally nonphased [read: unfazed] by the fact that God gave them the right numbers while withholding relief from agony to millions of dying children (with its attendant inconsolable parental grief). He would if He could, but He can’t so He doesn’t. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

BV: You may be conflating questions about the psychological quirks of certain nominal theists with the logical and philosophical questions about God and evil. These questions should be kept separate, as separate as psychology from logic/philosophy generally. There is plenty of ego-driven superstition in what passes for religion, so much so that many believe that religion just is superstition. (Check out Constantin Brunner on my sidebar.) I think you will agree that that is a question that should not be begged. There is genuine religion, there is superstition, and one of the tasks of the philosophy of religion is to explain the difference.

One should also distinguish the pastoral/counseling questions that the fact of evil may give rise to from the strictly philosophical problem of reconciling the fact of evil with the 'tri-omni' God. Suppose you have a sophisticated theist who does not make mundane petitions (may I get this job, win the lottery, etc.) but prays, "Thy will be done" and for whom "Give us this day our daily bread" is not so much a petition as a recognition that the essentials, food, water, air, finite existence as such, are divine gifts. This sophisticated theist will still face a serious personal problem when, for example, a child is abducted and murdered. But that personal problem is distinct from the philosophical problem of God and evil. Of course, it may cause the person to appreciate the latter problem, but the problems remain distinct.

It is also a total confusion to think that a defense or a theodicy (Plantinga rightly distinguishes these two) such as the Free Will Defense (FWD) is supposed to assuage the anguish of the victim of a crime, say. There are confused existentialist types who cannot grasp this simple point. If you explain the FWD to them, they sneer and snort as say, "Tell that to the parent whose child has been abducted and murdered."

I am not saying that you are one of these confused existentialist types, but it may be that you are in the vicinity of implying that classical theists are just not facing up to the reality of evil in all its horror, and that, if they did so, they would cease being classical theists. But if that is the line you are taking, then you are confusing the philosophical question with questions of psychology: you are saying that theodicies and defenses are nothing more than evasion-mechanisms. In that case, you would be psychologizing.