Would it be better if we knew why? Evil and Understanding
October 19, 2011 — 20:21

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Atheism & Agnosticism Existence of God Problem of Evil  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 16

I’ve just finished a literature survey in preparation for my SEP entry on Skeptical Theism, and I’ve noticed a bit of a loose end. Consider two kinds of possible worlds including God and evil (from Russell and Wykstra’s 1988 dialogue). One kind of world is the “morally transparent” world where the reasons God allows suffering are “near the surface” and so fairly easily discernible by us. Another kind is a “morally inscrutable” world where the reasons why God allows evil are either buried “beneath the surface” or in the distant future.
Wykstra’s original 1984 debut of CORNEA (man there is a lot of philosophy in that paper!) advanced the thesis that it is more likely that God would create a morally inscrutable world. Russel and Rowe give reasons for the opposite claim. Below the fold I’ll briefly summarize their arguments and suggest why it seems to me the atheist has the upper hand in this argument, and issue a call for attention to the research project of defending the goodness of a morally inscrutable universe.


In the 1988 dialogue with Bruce Russell where Wykstra introduces the deep(inscrutable)/shallow(transparent) universe distinction, Russell notes that transparency seems to be an intrinsic good. Rowe (2001, reply to Bergmann) notes that the Parent Analogy Wykstra originally appealed to backfires, because a loving parent would want their dear children to understand, and an all powerful parent would have the ability to make it happen (I dress it up a bit).
Wykstra’s argument for the thesis that theism makes more likely a morally inscrutable universe is based on the Extended Parent Analogy (EPA). He says that as intelligence, goodness, and ability increase, so does the probability of goods lying in the distant future. He contrasts this with the case of chance or ignorant, wicked, or inept parents, where it is contrastingly unlikely for goods to lie in the distant future.
I suppose that is somewhat plausible, but he neglects to consider that as those traits increase, it is also likely that the Russell-Rowe line of thought is *also* made more likely.
There hasn’t been sufficent discussion of this in the last decade, and that’s a shame, because it does seem like there should be some goods associated with the inscrutable universe, but it’s hard to flesh it out (for me, anyway (for example, the idea of the good of trust came quickly to mind, but I couldn’t make it stick)).
So I welcome suggestions for how the theism might illustrate the goodness of the morally inscrutable universe, since, as it seems to me, the non-theists seem to have the upper hand in this particular thread.

Comments:
  • How about instead of arguing that the inscrutability as such has a value, argue that it is as a necessary concommittant of something else that does have a value?
    Anyway, let me toss out some ideas:
    – A universe that has a lot of “depth” seems valuable (I am here thinking in part about the incredibly complex Leibnizian world), and there may be a value for this depth to be deep relative to the intellectual capacities of some of the world’s denizens. It could well be that some of the right kind of depth implies inscrutability.
    – There is an aesthetic value to a work of art that has details whose justification requires a view of the work as a whole, or at least a non-obvious correlation with distant other parts of the work. Why did the director have the taxi driver not eat the sandwich that his wife packed for him in Kieslowski’s Decalogue V? A complex question, having something to do with the parallel and subtle sort-of contrast between him and the murderer. Another instance of this is in Christian typology. (So not all cases of this aesthetic value involve evils.)
    All that said, don’t we often pause in class after we’ve given a question to give the students a chance to think about the question, perhaps so that they would appreciate the question? 75 years is less than a wink compared to infinity. 🙂

    October 20, 2011 — 9:23
  • Gregory Lewis

    I also thought the credence for moral ‘deepness’ was a pretty important topic, and I was surprised it tends to be dealt with only tangentially (at least in my limited reading).
    A cheeky suggestion: couldn’t Theist just reapply sceptical theist approaches to the inscrutability itself? Sure it is evil (or even more evil) that someone doesn’t know why they suffer (or even know that their suffering serves some greater purpose), and we have no idea why God would have it this way. But hey, God has reasons beyond our ken/we have limited epistemic access, etc. etc.
    Another way of looking at it: if we think it is reasonable that the justifying reasons for some nasty evil lie beyond our ken, why should we think justifying reasons for god not reassuring sufferers of this fact should be *within* our ken?

    October 20, 2011 — 12:13
  • Trent Dougherty

    Gregory, I don’t think the reiteration reply–which Bermann 2001 uses–will work here, because we’ve given reasons by Russell and Rowe to believe that God, though he *could* order the world in ways that are beyond our ken, *wouldn’t* do so, but, rather, since he *could* order the world in ways that are *within* our ken, and that this would have advantages over the inscrutable route, that’s what we’d expect from God.

    October 20, 2011 — 16:32
  • Anonymous

    It’s always seemed to me that this stretch of argument in the PoE lit dovetails with the crux of the debate over hiddenness. In both cases theists need to make plausible the claim that there are instrumental goods of ignorance, and the plausible candidates seem capable of doing double duty.
    But it strikes me as unlikely that we’d be able to conclude that the goods of inscrutability outweigh the bads (which is of course compatible with that in fact being the case). Think of how many people in fact seem to suffer a barrier to relation with God on the basis of feeling abandoned by God, mad at God for allowing them to suffer seemingly cruel and pointless evil, etc. Maybe those barriers are part of the instrumental goods, but we hardly seem warranted to conclude as much. So far as speaking to people who don’t share basic assumptions, I think it’s more about damage control in this area, though I’d welcome being persuaded otherwise.

    October 20, 2011 — 20:26
  • Matthew Mullins

    Trent,
    Could you say more about why Russell and Rowe think that the world could be ordered such that the reasons why God allows suffering are easily discernible to us? Perhaps Russell and Rowe just have a greater conception of what God could do, but I’m worried that agents that had the cognitive equipment to discern the reasons for allowing suffering wouldn’t be much like us. I mean I’m a pretty smart guy and I think I often struggle with the things that are supposed to be within my reach. This isn’t a move to retrench the ST, but to say that any beings that could have such an understanding would be a lot more like God than ourselves.
    Also, is there an argument for transparency being an intrinsic good, or is this just supposed to be a shared intuition? I ask because it isn’t obvious to me that transparency is always an intrinsic good, though we seem to often clamor for it. One worry I have is that transparency can expose you to information that you wouldn’t have previously been responsible for. So there is a way in which transparency can shape your choices and constrain ones freedom.

    October 20, 2011 — 20:45
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    A morally inscrutable universe will be a more morally challenging universe, and thus a better universe in the context of a soul-building theodicy.
    Further, suffering evils which God allows without knowing why God allows them increases the value of our love for God. The idea here is that love for a being who is overwhelmingly benevolent to one is in some significant sense hollow. Here’s an example: When I fell in love with the woman who is now my wife she seemed to me to be almost perfect. Now, after many years of marriage I know about her many imperfections, but this makes my love for her more precious still. Indeed, the more imperfect the object of our love, the more valuable our love – and that’s perhaps one reason why Christ asks us to love even our enemies. Thus our imperfect makes the love of God for us precious, and our love for God is precious because God sometimes appears to be imperfect or disinterested.
    In the context of the moral inscrutability of the universe I’d like to stress though that the problem of evil is often discussed on the wrong basis. The fact that God allows a particular evil to befall me does not entail that God has a good reason for allowing that particular evil to befall me. In fact I think in most cases there is no such good reason or justification. Rather God has good reason and justification for creating a world in which many particular evils do obtain. Thus theodicy must explain what purpose God has for creating a world in which particular evils do obtain, and *not* to explain what purpose God has for allowing each individual evil to obtain. In short, I think that many or most evils are inscrutable simply because there is nothing there to understand in each individual case, and not because God has created us having limited cognitive powers in this respect.

    October 21, 2011 — 2:47
  • There’s no question in my mind, that 99% of the Problem of Evil is the problem of Hiddenness. It comes out pretty clearly in the Wykstra-Rowe debate through the 80’s and 90’s and in the 2001 Rowe-Bergmann exchange. That’s one reason why I plan to shift into working on Hiddenness after the present batch of evil papers/books I’m working on.

    October 21, 2011 — 9:58
  • Trent Dougherty

    I am typically at pains to emphasize what you say concerning particular goods: that the good that justify evils are not typically like the better job you get when you lose the job you thought you really wanted. Rather, life is a test with a lot of random stuff in it, and the “point” of suffering is what we make of it in the trial. But this is a separate line of attack on the argument, and I was just trying to see how far the other line can go. I.e. keeping the theological anti-gratuitous-evil (as strictly defined) and attacking the empirical premise.
    For my own part, I do think that there are (and indeed must be (cf. Hasker and Peterson)) gratuitous evils. But I think a similar inductive problem arises. It is hard to see that a bunch of soul-building is worth this amount of suffering. Lots of people develop excellent moral character and virtue without suffering so badly. Some cases seem too extreme. And it seems unlikely that a loving parent with all the power and knowledge in the world would allow it to look like that. It’s misleading. So we’re back to wondering why it would be better to mislead than to be transparent.

    October 21, 2011 — 10:57
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Trent,
    “There’s no question in my mind, that 99% of the Problem of Evil is the problem of Hiddenness.”
    In our condition God is not just a being, but a path, a being-to-be-met. Speaking for myself I would much more prefer to live in a world in which my love for God reveals God’s beauty little by little to me, than a world in which God is simply and statically apparent.
    Also perhaps we shouldn’t overdo the problem. God’s presence may be hidden in some sense, but the absurdity of the lack of God is quite apparent. If in our current condition when looking towards God we don’t immediately perceive His/Her light, when looking away from God we do immediately perceive the darkness.
    I personally find John Hick’s explanation quite satisfying. God, out of respect for our freedom and in order to allow our love for Him/Her to be precious made the world in such a way that our discovery and enjoyment of God lies in choosing to walk the path that leads to Him/Her. To be good is to see God. And thus, ultimately, to see the truth, including why there is evil.

    October 23, 2011 — 2:36
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Trent,
    “There’s no question in my mind, that 99% of the Problem of Evil is the problem of Hiddenness.”
    In our condition God is not just a being, but a path, a being-to-be-met. Speaking for myself I would much more prefer to live in a world in which my love for God reveals God’s beauty little by little to me, than a world in which God is simply and statically apparent.
    Also perhaps we shouldn’t overdo the problem. God’s presence may be hidden in some sense, but the absurdity of the absence of God is quite apparent. If in our current condition when looking towards God we don’t immediately perceive His/Her light, when looking away from God we do immediately perceive the darkness.
    I personally find John Hick’s explanation quite satisfying. God, out of respect for our freedom and in order to allow our love for Him/Her to be precious made the world in such a way that our discovery and enjoyment of God lies in choosing to walk the path that leads to Him/Her. To be good is to see God. And thus, ultimately, to see the truth, including why there is evil.

    October 23, 2011 — 2:47
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Trent,
    “It is hard to see that a bunch of soul-building is worth this amount of suffering.”
    When I observe the world as a whole the amount of human suffering does not strike me as that great. For most people and for most of the time life is rather sweet. Indeed part of the human condition is the experience of cosmic gratitude, of being thankful for the mere fact of existence.
    I don’t quite understand the bit about the bunch of soul-building. Soul-building refers to the value of very being, so from our point of view it’s the most important thing there is.
    “Lots of people develop excellent moral character and virtue without suffering so badly.”
    The issue is not about particular lives. The question is what human condition (which entails the world in which one finds oneself living) is best suited for soul-building, and the claim is that a world like ours, i.e. a world in which evils randomly obtain, is the one best suited. In such a world it will happen that many do not suffer much. But even they exist in a world where others suffer much and where they might yet suffer much. It’s not so much that personal suffering is best for a particular person to develop excellent moral character, but that a world in which personal suffering obtains is best for the development of excellent moral character.
    “Some cases seem too extreme.”
    If it is the case that for soul-building a world is required in which random evils obtain, it will necessarily happen that many evils are small and that a few are big. I can see at least two reasons why a world in which random evils obtain would be chosen by God. One is that a world in which each particular evil had its own particular justification is probably logically impossible. It would require a minute cosmic choreography which, especially given the effect of human freedom, is quite probably impossible. The second (and in my judgment stronger) reason is this: Love entails respect, and I think it would be disrespectful of God to put created persons in a choreographed world in which some particular people for good particular reasons should suffer much more than others. And not only disrespectful but perhaps ultimately unjust.
    But I am digressing. I think above you are pointing out that some evils are of a truly horrendous, soul-injuring, nature. Here the relevant question is this: Is a world in which nobody risks suffering horrendous evils a better one for soul-building? It’s difficult to say, but unless one has reason to believe that it is, one has no defeater against the soul-building theodicy. That in our fallen state we crave for security, and thus would rather live in a world where we wouldn’t risk suffering horrendous evils, is clearly beside the point.

    October 23, 2011 — 3:01
  • Aaron

    Dianelos,
    Re: ‘For most people and for most of the time life is rather sweet.’
    The vast majority of humans who have ever existed have lived short, nasty, and brutish lives. The Western industrialized countries have only recently extracted themselves from the abject poverty and famine and disease which weighed down the majority of their populations. (Many parts of the non-industrialized world remain in abject states.) Review the relevant statistics on pre-industrial life spans, disease rates, the rates of food shortages, wars, infant and mother mortalities, etc.
    Re: ‘Indeed part of the human condition is the experience of cosmic gratitude, of being thankful for the mere fact of existence.’
    Person X exists now in a state of great pain and suffering (she is a sex slave, raised from birth as such, in Thailand who has experienced only coldness and cruelty). Now, at first blush, it seems to me we cannot, rationally, say that X is better off in her current state simply because she exists, right? I mean, *if* she never existed, she would have never experienced such horror. Furthermore, had X never existed, it is not the case that X could be in a worse position since it is not the case that there is a person X such that X is in a worse place (X is in no place since X does not exist).
    Judging from the rest of your comments, I wonder if you could describe a state of affairs which would defeat the theodicy which you find most attractive. In other words, is it possible for there to be evil of some sort or in some quantity which could defeat your belief in a morally perfect, omni-type deity?

    October 24, 2011 — 0:34
  • KV

    It may be logically impossible for God to actualize his morally sufficient reasons He has for permitting the evil in the world if they were completely transparent to us either because He told us, or because we could apprehend them ourselves. It would be like asking God what number I was thinking of in my head and when he told me, I changed the number in my head to make his prediction wrong. Likewise, if God were to permit some evil, and we knew the reason, then we might act in ways that would make it the case that God’s morally sufficient reasons wouldn’t come about.
    Second, in a world where God was intervening to stop pointless evil from occuring, we might well imagine atheists (of a soft sort), arguing that an omni-God could create a world in which He didn’t have to tinker with the events through supernatural intervention, and that since we observe a tinkering God, such a God must be less than all powerful, and/or all-knowing. If God wisely chose not create such a world of Newtonian providence, and instead went with our actual world which exhibits Leibnizian providence, then such a world would seem to entail “deep” goods that are inscrutable to us as well. Of course, this assumes that there aren’t any worlds feasible for God that are both Leibnizian, and morally transparent with respect to evil in the world. Nonetheless, for all we know, such worlds are not feasible, and we would still have a successful undercutting defeater.

    October 25, 2011 — 16:33
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Aaron,
    “The vast majority of humans who have ever existed have lived short, nasty, and brutish lives.”
    If knowing the human condition but without knowing any particular details (i.e. from behind a veil of ignorance), one were given the opportunity to choose whether to be born as a human or not to exist at all, what do you think would be the rational choice? I am making this question because it seems to me that the human condition, warts and all, is still a huge blessing. I would say that even the life of the beasts in the field is a good thing for them.
    The problem of evil (in its various forms) looks for an internal incoherence in the theistic position. As such I greatly value this problem because its solution will help us understand God better. (And I find that theists are slowly advancing towards its solution.) But in order to advance one must frame the problem correctly. In this context I think there are two common mistakes one must avoid. One is to think that there must be a justification for each single evil there is. Not so; there only must be a justification for the creation of a world in which evils (of the kind we experience) obtain. The second mistake is to fail to notice that the human condition is on the whole a hugely good thing. Neither insight represents a solution of course; on the other hand to commit either mistake leads one astray.
    “Person X exists now in a state of great pain and suffering [snip]”
    I think one should not consider a particular human X, but the whole of the human condition (in which some people will be particularly unfortunate).
    Let me justify the above on purely practical epistemic grounds: If one finds a justification for each person X then one has a justification for the whole of the human condition too, but not vice-versa. Justifying the whole of the human condition is thus the easier problem. Therefore if one has reason to believe that there is a solution to the problem of evil it makes sense to first try to solve the easier problem. When the easier problem is solved then perhaps the solution to the harder problem will suggest itself.
    Here is a slightly different justification. Consider the worse possible case, i.e. that the world is such that a human X will suffer not only horrendous evils but evils such that they are eschatologically unredeemable. In other words, no matter any possible future rewards X would rather not have existed at all. Can it be that a world where X exists is justified? I can imagine at least two ways in which it can. First, it may be the case that any human (again, behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance) would rationally choose this world over any other even at the risk of being X. Secondly, at the eschaton there are perhaps no individual humans, but rather a unified humanity. If so at the eschaton there will be no X to judge her non-existence preferable. What I mean here is that in a significant sense there are perhaps no individual humans and thus no particular horrendous evils.
    “is it possible for there to be evil of some sort or in some quantity which could defeat your belief in a morally perfect, omni-type deity?”
    Yes, of course. Suppose I would find one person suffering eternally in hell with no possibility of atonement – that would defeat my belief in God, i.e. in a being who is perfect in all respects.

    November 1, 2011 — 12:41
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Aaron,
    “The vast majority of humans who have ever existed have lived short, nasty, and brutish lives.”
    If knowing the human condition but without knowing any particular details (i.e. from behind a veil of ignorance), one were given the opportunity to choose whether to be born as a human or not to exist at all, what do you think would be the rational choice? I am making this question because it seems to me that the human condition, warts and all, is still a huge blessing. I would say that even the life of the beasts in the field is a good thing for them.
    The problem of evil (in its various forms) looks for an internal incoherence in the theistic position. As such I greatly value this problem because its solution will help us understand God better. (And I find that theists are slowly advancing towards its solution.) But in order to advance one must frame the problem correctly. In this context I think there are two common mistakes one must avoid. One is to think that there must be a justification for each single evil there is. Not so; there only must be a justification for the creation of a world in which evils (of the kind we experience) obtain. The second mistake is to fail to notice that the human condition is on the whole a hugely good thing. Neither insight represents a solution of course; on the other hand to commit either mistake leads one astray.
    “Person X exists now in a state of great pain and suffering [snip]”
    I think one should not consider a particular human X, but the whole of the human condition (in which some people will be particularly unfortunate).
    Let me justify the above on purely practical epistemic grounds: If one finds a justification for each person X then one has a justification for the whole of the human condition too, but not vice-versa. Justifying the whole of the human condition is thus the easier problem. Therefore if one has reason to believe that there is a solution to the problem of evil it makes sense to first try to solve the easier problem. When the easier problem is solved then perhaps the solution to the harder problem will suggest itself.
    Here is a slightly different justification. Consider the worse possible case, i.e. that the world is such that a human X will suffer not only horrendous evils but evils such that they are eschatologically unredeemable. In other words, no matter any possible future rewards X would rather not have existed at all. Can it be that a world where X exists is justified? I can imagine at least two ways in which it can. First, it may be the case that any human (again, behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance) would rationally choose this world over any other even at the risk of being X. Secondly, at the eschaton there are perhaps no individual humans, but rather a unified humanity. If so at the eschaton there will be no X to judge her non-existence preferable. What I mean here is that in a significant sense there are perhaps no individual humans and thus no particular horrendous evils.
    “is it possible for there to be evil of some sort or in some quantity which could defeat your belief in a morally perfect, omni-type deity?”
    Yes, of course. Suppose I would find one person suffering eternally in hell with no possibility of atonement – that would defeat my belief in God, i.e. in a being who is perfect in all respects.

    November 1, 2011 — 12:56
  • Nate Shannon

    If I may, I appreciate both points in terms of the value of inscrutability: Leibnizian complexity (I think it decent theology to hold a broadly Leibnizian view of contingency) and aesthetics (can we say liturgical/sacramental, in that case?). But I think both moral transparency and inscrutability are aspects of the universe which the theist would not want to surrender.
    The theist should want to maintain scrutability, or the moral intelligibility of the world, on some level. It seems a necessary part of theism. The theist also has a stake in a measure of inscrutability, but a distinction is paramount here, between God’s knowledge and the creature’s. The creation is fully (absolutely) morally transparent to God, as transparent to God as his own being (assuming a robust doctrine of creation ex nihilo, divine knowledge of future conditionals, etc.). But the creation cannot be fully morally transparent to the creature, or he would be God. So the creature must have some measure of true moral knowledge, or access to it; but that access cannot be exhaustive, or he would be omniscient. But he isn’t.
    There is a difficulty in terms of balancing limited knowledge with true knowledge, however. This is easier for the theist (who has an epistemology which is friendly to revelation) than for the atheist; in fact, I think this is a basic difference between a theistic and an atheistic cosmology, a strength of the former and a weakness for the latter (in the former, the world is ultimately known; in the latter, who knows?).

    December 3, 2011 — 14:20