Friday, February 3, 2012

A God of Good

“Hypa, be reasonable…I am the justification of evil, evil causes me”
-- Azazel, from Azazel by Dr. Youssef Zidan.

Note: I am not an academic philosopher so I beg you excuse and point out any mistakes in my thought process. These are mere musings and thoughts. They do not attempt to answer but merely provide an invitation to think.

The questions we struggle with are uncountable. What is reality? How can we define reality? Is reality subjective or outside of us, independent of our senses? What is it that makes our consciousness subjective to each one of us? How can we ground such subjectivity to the tiny neurons that constitute our brain? How is it that a bunch of electrical signals pulsating in a lump of flesh and blood residing in our heads can turn out to be responsible for this amazing amount of sensory experience, including clearly subjective qualitative experience...Tasting an apple, hearing Beethoven's 5th symphony or seeing the color red? It seems bizarre. After all, a brain is an ugly little thing!

These fascinating questions have boggled philosophers of mind for centuries and several of them continue to be the cause of much controversy and they remain my personal and central interest as a hobbyist of philosophy.

But they are not my concern today. My concern today is a question that is, perhaps, as hard to answer as the others: If we assume an omnibenevolent (all-loving), omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) God or Creator; why is it that natural evil exists? The earthquakes, the tsunamis, the forest fires, the tornados, the floods that have killed millions since the beginning of time...Why does God seem to intend, or at least allow, such evils?

Celebrated philosopher of mind John R. Searle wrote that one of the best ways of answering a philosophical question is not to rush to answer but to analyze the question. On analysis, we are brought to three main objections to the question itself. All of these objections attempt to dismiss the question as, essentially, a non-question.

Objection 1: Not Evil:

The first is shocking at face-value, "Those aren't evil! Only moral evil is what we can term evil. There is no such thing as natural evil".

But what does that even mean!

Of course, it's evil! Assuming some objective measure of meta-ethics (something common in all central mainstream beliefs of God) evil is, technically, the opposite of good and good is what we can roughly define as whatever maximizes human well-being. So, yes, a child drowning in a flood is evil. It strikes a family at its heart. It can drive people insane with depression. It can drive people to end their own lives. These things are certainly not maximizing human well-being. 

Furthermore, we can easily label the death of a child as an "evil" act on part of whoever did if it was moral (and not natural) evil we were talking about (for example: if the child was killed by a fellow human being). So why is it that when a "natural" cause is involved, such as flood or AIDS or cancer, why is that not evil? To me, it seems a logical contradiction to label it as any possible shade of "good".

Clarifying his position, a person purporting this objection will tell you that you got him all wrong. He wasn't redefining the meaning of evil, merely, redefining the meaning of natural evil. The form of the objection, in this case, is that natural evils are, themselves, moral evils caused by free agents, possessing free will like ourselves. Creatures like the devil, fallen angels, demons, etc.

But we are brought to a dead-end if we admit God yet do not admit the existence of such creatures. Furthermore, if we are to include such creatures in our initial premises, the burden of proof lies on whoever’s proposing the objection to tell us why we should logically believe these beings exist. Furthermore, we are discussing under specific premises and those premises simply do not include the presumption that supernatural beings, other than God, exist. Due to that, I feel this is a weak objection at heart.   

Objection 2: For the Greater Good:

There is a second, smarter objection, "Perhaps these evils, though at their face-value seem evil, work to form some sort of ultimate good. Perhaps the best, clearly good, qualities in us (courage, heroism, etc.) can only be brought about in a world where natural evil and good both exist".

This is, at face-value, simply a restatement of Objection 1. It attempts to rename natural evil as a constituent 
of “greater good” in the same way Objection 1 aimed to rename natural evil to “moral evil”.  We have assumed that God is all-good, all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing. This is our initial premise. By what rule of inference can we jump to the idea that this allows for evils, of any size, that can form a greater good? One would think an all-good God is exactly that: an all-good God; a God who does not intend evil for human beings, of any possible size or for any possible purpose. This is merely a shift of the burden of proof designed specifically to set us away from the main idea.  

The second part of the objection is interesting yet does not seem compelling. It is, essentially, an argument of semantics. “Up can’t exist without a down. Good can’t exist without evil”. Why is that presumed axiomatic? Furthermore, this argument cannot be correspondingly used to justify moral evil. In other words, can we really say that a moral evil like war ought to exist because otherwise there would be no way in which a soldier would save his comrade in a heroic act of courage? That sounds preposterous. And therefore, the argument applied to natural evil should be dismissed in the same vein.  

Many of us are then forced into coming up with certain weak excuses like, "We don't know how God thinks" or "How do we expect to understand?". But that strikes me as overly ignorant: We started with the premise that one got the idea of God, grand as it is, and one was capable of wrapping one’s mind about that. One was, further, capable of wrapping one’s mind about the different qualities of God (omniscience, omnipotence, etc.). Determining why natural evil exists given God exists seems like a comparatively minor task.

If we had put a limit to our thought process, if we had determined that we "could never understand", how did we arrive at our current conclusions of God when they seem comparatively more complex?

Objection 3: The Scientific Objection:

This objection tells us the world would suck if there was no natural evil because there wouldn’t be a world to start with. In other words: Earthquakes kill, yes, but they were also responsible for forming continents and raising civilizations. So with every natural evil, there is evidentially some hidden scientifically plausible good.

This is all acceptable if we did not admit to God’s omnipotence with our initial premises. We can safely assume God cannot create a world of married bachelors; such a world is illogical and cannot exist and therefore even an omnipotent God is incapable of creating it. But what plausible reason can we give for God not creating a world where continents are formed by a process other than earthquakes? Or where tsunamis never occur? Or where the water level never rises to cause deadly floods? How would a world like this be worse than a world where every possible “good” outcome of natural disasters is accompanied by an equally evil outcome? To add a final blow to this objection, one would also think an all-loving God would be willing to create such a world.          
So once we are past these objections, we are back to square one. I think to answer the question of natural evil we are in desperate need of reshaping our entire understanding of God. Our understanding of God as a force external to us; a force outside of us, too perfect for sorrow or for happiness, above feelings of human emotion has to be broken down for us to construct a renewed understanding of God.

We can also note that, from an emotional standpoint, any of those previous objections is worth zilch to a husband widowed by a hurricane or a child orphaned by tsunami or a mother who loses her child trapped in the rubbles of an earthquake.  How can we explain to that mother why God allowed her son to die? Why did God sacrifice this tiny creature, incapable of sin, incapable of inflicting evil to any type of “greater good”? Such questions are so suffocating and thought-provoking that we often brush them aside with our justification being that such times are no times to justify or understand. They are times to cry.  

And my belief is that in order to justify an all-good God, we simply cannot limit God to the rigid logical master of the Universe; omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. God cannot be placed as a force external to ourselves entirely but as a force within us. God would be, in this context, capable and willing to feel our pain, of being compassionate and to suffer with us the immeasurable pain of loss.

Can a case for such a perception of God be made without falling into traps of circular reasoning and without giving up God’s omnipotence? My current answer is: I don’t know. And I invite you to share your views to that question, and any other views you might have over these musings, through the comments.

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