Problems of evil

by Joe Carlsmith17 min read19th Apr 202117 comments

19

World Optimization
Frontpage

(Cross-posted from Hands and Cities)

I.

I wasn’t raised in a religious household, but I got interested in Buddhism at the end of high school, and in Christianity and a number of other traditions, early in college. Those were the days of the New Atheists, and of intricate wrangling over theistic apologetics. And I did some of that. I went, sometimes, to the atheist group, and to some Christian ones; I read books, and had long conversations; I watched lectures, and YouTube debates.

Much of the back-and-forth about theism that I engaged with at that point in my life, I don’t think about much, now. But I notice that one bit, at least, has stayed with me, and seemed relevant outside of theistic contexts as well: namely, the problem of evil.

As usually stated, the problem of evil is something like: if God is perfectly good, knowing, and powerful, why is there so much evil in the world? But I think this version is too specific, and epistemic. Unlike many other issues in theistic apologetics, I think the problem of evil — or something in the vicinity — cuts at something much broader than a “three O” (omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent) God. Indeed, I think it cuts past belief, to a certain affirming orientation towards, and commitment to, reality itself — an orientation I think many non-theists, especially of a “spiritual” bent (including a secularized/naturalistic one), aspire towards, too.

II.

My impression is that of the many objections to theism, the problem of evil has, amongst theists, a certain kind of unique status — centrally, in its recognized force, and but also, in the way this force can apply independent of doubt about God’s existence per se.

Here’s the (devoutly Christian) theologian David Bentley Hart:

“That’s the best argument of all. It’s not an argument regarding God’s existence or non-existence, because that’s a question, first you have to define what existence means, what God means. But it goes directly to the question of divine goodness and benevolence. It’s the weightiest and the most powerful and the one that, actually, is the argument that’s adduced most often by believers, famously Dostoyevsky… It’s the argument that holds the most water for me.”

Indeed, Hart calls various responses to the problem of evil “banal and sometimes quite repulsive”:

“…the Calvinist argument for divine sovereignty, does it really have to justify itself to you morally; or equally, Richard Swinburne’s arguments, forgive me, I hate to name names, about how suffering gives us opportunities for moral goodness, and that includes, apparently, the holocaust… I think ultimately, if that’s the calculus, then God comes out as evil. There’s just no way you work your way to the end of these chains of reasoning, without coming up with an arbitrary and in some ways quite deplorable picture of God.”

(See also the Christian apologist and philosopher Alvin Plantinga, who writes: “I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil—theodicies, as we may call them—strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous.”)

C.S. Lewis, too (another Christian apologist), seems to have felt the problem of evil with special acuity. In the beginning of The Problem of Pain, he describes why, before his conversion, he rejected Christianity:

“If you asked me to believe that [the pain and seeming indifference of the world] is the work of a benevolent and omnipotent spirit, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction. Either there is no spirit behind the universe, or else a spirit indifferent to good and evil, or else an evil spirit.”

Indeed, A Grief Observed — a book compiled from journals Lewis wrote after his wife (called “H.” in the book) died of cancer — documents a (brief) crisis in this regard: not of faith in God, per se, but of faith in God’s goodness. Wracked by grief, haunted by his wife’s pain, Lewis writes:

“Come, what do we gain by evasions? We are under the harrow and can’t escape. Reality, looked at steadily, is unbearable. And how or why did such a reality blossom (or fester) here and there into the terrible phenomenon called consciousness?…

If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people… No, my real fear is not materialism. If it were true, we — or what we mistake for ‘we’ — could get out, get from under the harrow. An overdose of sleeping pills would do it. I am more afraid that we are really rats in a trap. Or worse still, rats in a laboratory….

Sooner or later I must face the question in plain language. What reason have we, except our own desperate wishes, to believe that God is, by any standard we can conceive, ‘good’? Doesn’t all the prima facie evidence suggest exactly the opposite? What have we to set against it?…”

(The first few chapters of A Grief Observed, by the way, are some of my favorite bits of Lewis; and he exhibits, there, a vulnerability and doubt rare amidst his usual confidence).

Like Lewis, Dostoyevsky’s Ivan does not present evil as an objection to God’s existence per se. Indeed, he accepts that at the end of days, he may see the justice of the suffering of children; but he does not want to see it, or accept a ticket to heaven on such terms:

“Oh, Alyosha, I am not blaspheming! I understand, of course, what an upheaval of the universe it will be, when everything in heaven and earth blends in one hymn of praise and everything that lives and has lived cries aloud: ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed.’…  I, too, perhaps, may cry aloud with the rest, looking at the mother embracing the child’s torturer, ‘Thou art just, O Lord!’ but I don’t want to cry aloud then… It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.”

I think part of what might be going on, in these quotations, is that the problem of evil is about more than metaphysics. Indeed, Lewis dismisses materialism as confidently as ever; Hart sets the question of God’s “existence,” whatever that means, swiftly to the side; Ivan still expects the end of days. The problem of evil shakes them on a different axis — and plausibly, a more important one. It shakes, I think, their love of God, whatever He is. And love, perhaps, is the main thing.

III.

One common response to the problem of evil is: we don’t know why God permits so much evil, but we shouldn’t expect to know, either. He is too far beyond us. His ways are not our ways.

We see some of this, for example, in the book of Job. Job was “perfect and upright” (Job 1:1); but God, in a dispute with the devil about whether Job righteousness depends on his material advantages, allows the devil to kill Job’s children, servants, and livestock, and to cover Job’s body with boils. At first, Job refuses to curse God (“the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord”). But later, Job complains. Eventually, God appears to him in a whirlwind, to remind him how little he understands:

“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou has understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest?” (Job 38:4).

Job, with friends, sitting in ashes. 
Painting by Repin, image source here.

More philosophical versions of this sometimes invoke a chess-master. If you see Gary Kasparov make a chess move that looks bad to you, this need not impugn his mastery.

Response: OK, but if you’re not sure whether it’s Kasparov, or a random move generator, bad moves are evidence. And eventually — as queen and rooks fall, as no hint of strategy emerges — lots of it.

But we can un-know harder: why think you even know what it is to win at chess? Sure, God does bad-seeming things. But what are human concepts of “good’ and “bad,” faced with God’s transcendence?

Here’s Lewis, responding to moves like this:

If God’s moral judgment differs from ours so that our ‘black’ may be His ‘white’, we can mean nothing by calling Him good; for to say ‘God is good’, while asserting that His goodness is wholly other than ours, is really only to say ‘God is we know not what’. And an utterly unknown quality in God cannot give us moral grounds for loving or obeying him.” (p. 567)

Whether this argument actually works isn’t clear. Analogy: if you are devoted to any being that plays for the true win conditions of chess, and you hypothesize, initially, that checkmate constitutes winning, you’ll still end up devoted to a being who plays for a wholly different condition, if that condition turns out to be the true one (thanks to Katja Grace for suggesting objections in this vein; and see, also, the Euthyphro dilemma). But I think Lewis is pointing at an important worry regardless (and indeed, one that hit him hard during the crisis described above): namely, that if we go too far into “unknowing”; if we strip from God too much of what we think of as “goodness”; or if we call too many bad things “good,” then God, and goodness, start to empty out completely.

This worry seems especially salient in the context of contemporary (liberal, academic) theology, which in my experience (though it’s been a few years now), is heavily “apophatic” and mystical. That is, it approaches God centrally in His beyond-ness: beyond language, knowledge, mind and matter, personhood and non-personhood; beyond, even, existence and non-existence. Thus, Meister Eckhart writes of God: “He is being beyond being: he is a nothingness beyond being.” Or John Scotus Eriugena: “Literally God is not, because He transcends being.”

Perhaps God is beyond being. But is he beyond goodness, too? Some bits of Eckhart suggest this. “God is not good, or else he could be better.” (Though, conceptual transcendence aside, this seems like a terrible argument? “Pure black is not dark, or else it could be darker.”) And indeed, if we are to say nothing about God, presumably this includes: nothing good. God is blank.

But what, then — amidst the horrors of this world — grounds worship, reverence, devotion?

I think a variety of non-theists face something like this question, too. 

IV.

In my days of talking with lots of people about their spirituality, I learned to ask certain questions to figure out where they were coming from; and whether they believed in God, or even in a “personal God,” wasn’t high on the list. Of Christians, for example, I would generally ask whether they believed in the literal, bodily resurrection of the historical Jesus — a concrete question that I think efficiently distinguishes variants of Christianity (e.g., “I believe in miracles” vs. “well it’s really all a kind of symbolic thing at the end of the day isn’t it?”), and which has some biblical endorsement as central (Corinthians 15:14: “if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain”).

Similarly, I think of whether someone believes that Ultimate Reality is in some sense “good” as a much more informative question, spiritually speaking, than whether they believe in God, or that e.g., our Universe was created by something like a person. Indeed, I know a variety of vigorously secular folks who take seriously creation stories involving intelligent agents (see, even, Dawkins). And there are many God-related words (the Ground of Being, the Absolute, the Source, the Unconditioned, the Deathless) and concepts (pantheism, Deism) that do not imply anything like goodness (many of which, relatedly, can be compatible with something like naturalism — though the practice of capitalizing letters of abstract, God-related words seems, instructively in this context, in a higher-level sort of tension with the intellectual aesthetic most associated with naturalism).

But I don’t think that “belief” — whether in divine goodness or no — really captures what matters, either. Indeed, mystical/apophatic traditions like Eckhart’s often focus on negating and/or going beyond concepts — and “belief” is tough without concepts. Does Eckhart’s God exist? Does a dog have Buddha nature? Mu.

More broadly, the relationship between “spirituality” and explicit belief seems, at least, complex. Consider Ginsberg (1956):

“The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!

Everything is holy! everybody’s holy! everywhere is holy! everyday is an eternity! Everyman’s an angel!”

What is the “belief” here? Not, clearly, that men don’t murder, or that clocks don’t tick. And looking out at the panoply of spiritual practices, communities, and experiences to which even metaphysically-naturalistic folk devote passionate energy, belief (even of a fuzzy, inconsistent, and/or motte-and-bailey kind) hardly seems the main thing going on.

But if we set aside belief — and especially, if we endeavor to avoid belief of the kind that makes apologetics, metaphysics, etc necessary at all — is it all just “sexed up atheism,” in Dawkins’s phrase, or non-sense? I think that at the very least, there are interesting differences between how e.g. Meister Eckhart is orienting towards the world, and how straw-Dawkins (even when appreciative of the world’s beauty) is doing so — differences separable from their respective metaphysics, but core to their respective “spirituality.”

V.

Dawkins, Carroll, Sagan, Tyson: all are keen to remind us of the wonder and awe compatible with naturalism (indeed, Kriss (2016) goes so far as to accuse popular atheists of peddling forms of beauty that discourage social change: “Whenever you hear a rapturous defense of the natural world, you should be on your guard: this is class power talking, and it’s trying to kill you”). But beliefs aside, are wonder and awe enough to equate the attitudes of Dawkins and Eckhart? I think: no. For one thing, there is a difference between (a) attitudes directed at particular arrangements of reality (stars, flowers, and so forth), and (b) attitudes directed, in some sense, at reality itself, the Being of beings. (Though stars, flowers, etc can serve, for (b), as vehicles, or sparks, or windows.)

In this vein, we might think of an attitude’s “existential-ness” as proportionate to the breadth of vision it purports to encompass. Thus, to see a man suffering in the hospital is one thing; to see, in this suffering, the sickness of our society and our history as a whole, another; and to see in it the poison of being itself, the rot of consciousness, the horrific helplessness of any contingent thing, another yet.

We might call this last one “existential negative”; and we might call Ginsberg’s attitude, above, “existential positive.” Ginsberg looks at skin, nose, cock, and sees not just particular “holy” things, contrasted with “profane” things (part of the point, indeed, is that cocks read as profane), but holiness itself — something everywhere at once, infusing saint and sinner alike, shit and sand and saxophone, skyscrapers and insane asylums, pavement and railroads, the sea, the eyeball, the river of tears.

Or consider this passage from Hesse’s Siddhartha:

“He no longer saw the face of his friend Siddhatha. Instead he saw other faces, many faces, a long series, a continuous stream of faces — hundreds, thousands, which all came and disappeared and yet all seemed to be there at the same time, which all continually changed and renewed themselves, and which were yet all Siddhartha. He saw the face of a fish, of a carp, with tremendous painfully opened mouth, a dying fish with dimmed eyes. He saw the face of a newly born child, red and full of wrinkles, ready to cry. He saw the face of a murderer, saw him plunge a knife into the body of a man; at the same moment he saw this criminal kneeling down, bound, and his head cut off by an executioner. He saw the naked bodies of men and women in the postures and transports of passionate love. He saw corpses stretched out, still, cold, empty. He saw the heads of animals — boars, crocodiles, elephants, oxen, birds. He saw Krisha and Agni. He saw all these forms and faces in a thousand relationships to each other … And all these forms and faces rested, flowed, swam past and merged into each other, and over them all there was continually something thin, unreal and yet existing, stretched across like thin glass or ice, like a transparent skin, shell, form or mask of water — and this was Siddhartha’s smiling face which Govinda touched with his lips at that moment.”

This seems to me “existential positive,” too. Govinda’s vision purports to encompass all of birth and death; the ten thousand things, seen in their unity; and yet Siddhartha smiles. And we can see many of the quotes from theists, in section II, as responding to the sense in which the problem of evil threatens their own “existential positive,” whether it threatens their belief in God or no.

To the extent that it goes beyond e.g. “the stars are so beautiful,” I think that a lot of contemporary, non-theistic spirituality involves elements of “existential positive” — even if not explicitly stated, and even in the context of more metaphysically pessimistic traditions, like Buddhism. Mystical traditions, for example (and secularized spirituality, in my experience, is heavily mystical), generally aim to disclose some core and universal dimension of reality itself, where this dimension is experienced as in some deep sense positive — e.g. prompting of ecstatic joy, relief, peace, and so forth. Eckhart rests in something omnipresent, to which he is reconciled, affirming, trusting, devoted; and so too, do many non-Dualists, Buddhists, Yogis, Burners (Quakers? Unitarian Universalists?) — or at least, that’s the hope. Perhaps the Ultimate is not, as in three-O theism, explicitly said to be “good,” and still less, “perfect”; but it is still the direction one wants to travel; it is still something to receive, rather than to resist or ignore; it is still “sacred.”

Indeed, we might think of popular injunctions to be “present,” “aware,” “here,” “now” — at least when interpreted in non-instrumental terms — as expressing a kind of existential positive, too. If reality is not in some sense good; and if turning towards it, receiving it, being aware of it, promotes no other worldly end (calm, focus, ethical clarity, etc); why, then, be mindful, or awake? Why not distract, or dull, or delude, or ignore?

What’s more, even if everything in this world is holy, in the limit of breadth, the “existential positive” here extends yet further — beyond any of the ways the world just happens to be, to a kind of affirmation of Being/Reality in itself, however manifest. Or at least, this is implied, I think, by a kind of unconditional holiness. (Though Katja Grace suggests: maybe in this world, everything is holy, but that other world, it isn’t. Indeed, we could even try to imagine a kind of “holiness zombie” world, physically identical to this one). More contingent forms of universal holiness, I think, involve what we might think of as “existential luck” — akin to (though broader than) the type Satan accuses God of giving Job. Sure, you’re spiritual here, in an often-pretty world, with your telescopes and your oxen and your boil-free skin. But suppose you were in a hell world. Suppose, in fact, you already are. (Kriss thinks you are.) What holiness, then?

VI.

In the context of the “existential positive,” and especially in its least contingent forms, a kind of non-theistic problem of evil re-arises. What is Ginsberg’s holiness, if holocaust, Alzheimers, rape, depression, factory farm, be holy? Or if, more, the worst possible world would be holy — since it, too, would be real? Ginsberg need not excuse God’s creation of the world’s horrors; Ginsberg’s God need not create, or choose, or know. Nor need Ginsberg protect or preserve those horrors, however holy. But there is still something in them of the Real; and the Real, for Ginsberg (or, my imagined Ginsberg), and for many others, is sacred in itself.

We see pressures, here, similar to those that drove the old theologians towards the obscure doctrine of “privatio boni“: that is, the view that evil is nothing real and substantive in itself, but is rather the absence or privation of goodness. God, after all, is the fount of all reality; to say that some bit of reality is bad, then, risks marring God’s perfection. Indeed, Lewis, in his depiction of Hell in The Great Divorce, makes it a tiny, insubstantial place, fading into nothingness, barely there (though the “barely,” I think, points at part of what makes privatio boni unstable — e.g., if evil really weren’t there, it struggles to play a role in the story).

Relatedly, for the old theologians, reality/being/existence was itself a “perfection” (hence, e.g. the ontological argument). And the “transcendentals” — that is, the set of properties common to all beings — were thought to include not just non-normative properties like “truth,” “unity,” and so forth, but also “beauty,” and “goodness.” We might see Ginsberg’s “holiness” as a transcendental, too.

But as ever, as soon as we set out to forge a non-contingent connection between the True and the Good; the Real and the Sacred; the Is and the Ought; the Ultimate and the to-be-Trusted, Affirmed, Rested-In, Worshipped — we run right into cancers; genocides; parasites; paralysis; predators ripping flesh from bone; mass extinctions; “bees in the heart, then scorpions, maggots, and then ash.” Contra the old theologians, these things are just as True, Real, Is, Ultimate, as anything else. If these, too, are sacred, then what is sacredness? Why reverence for the Real? Why not defiance, rebellion, disgust?

VII.

We might make a similar point a different way. Much of contemporary spirituality, I think, aims at a certain type of unification or “non-duality.” It aims, that is, to erase or transcend distinctions rather than draw them; to reach the whole, rather than the part. Indeed, to the extent that an “existential” attitude aims, ultimately, to encompass as much of the “whole picture” as possible, some aspiration towards unity seems almost inevitable.

But as we raise the level of abstraction, but wish to persist in some kind of existential affirmation, we will include, and affirm, more and more of the world’s horror, too (until, indeed, we move past what the world is actually like, to what it could be like, and to horrors untold). The content of the affirmation thereby either drains away, or horribly distorts. That is, naively, affirmation is made meaningful via its dualism; via the distinction between what is to be affirmed and what is not — and much of the world is, one might think, “not.” As this distinction collapses, the difference between “existential positive” and nihilism, good and “beyond good,” becomes increasingly unclear.

Thus, for example, Rumi writes:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there…

Indeed, in my experience, various non-dual-flavored spiritual teachers flirt with, or explicitly endorse, what look, naively, like fairly direct types of nihilism, even as they urge e.g. compassion and kindness elsewhere. Buddhists doing this often suggest that realizing the empty and constructed nature of all things will, in fact, lead to greater compassion; and perhaps, empirically, this is right. But what if it doesn’t? Why should it? Indeed, confidence has waned, amongst some Western Buddhists, in a strongly reliable or “default” connection between “ethics” and “insight.” And good vs. bad, in some non-dual contexts, is just another constructed distinction — indeed, perhaps a core barrier — holding you back; another type of separation; perhaps, indeed, another type of violence.

But if we go fully beyond ideas of “good” and “bad,” what calls us towards Rumi’s field? We need not understand “goodness” in narrow, brittle, moralistic, or universalized ways; discernment need not exclude openness and receptivity; and perhaps it is good, in ways, to learn to put down “good” entirely, at least at times. But the David Enochs and Thomas Nagels of the world are right, I think, to recognize the ubiquity of at least some kind of normativity to a huge amount of human thought, and non-dual spirituality (not to mention much of the discourse about “non-judgment”) is no exception. “Beyond good” is not “special extra super good.” It’s just actually not good (or bad). Go fully beyond any sort of good, and the sacred loses its shine.

VIII. 

My main aim here has been to point at the ways that something reminiscent of the theistic problem of evil applies to more amorphous forms of (even very naturalistic) spirituality, too. I won’t, here, say much about how deep a problem this is, and how one might respond to it (and sufficiently mystical responses will simply be: “this is a problem that arises at the level of concepts; but if you go experience of e.g. holiness itself, it does not arise, at least not in this way” — and I think there’s at least something to this).

Obviously, one response is to reject any kind of reverence or affirmation towards the Real in itself. Indeed, the rejection of any sort of evaluatively rich attitude (positive or negative) towards the Real in itself seems to me a plausible candidate for the essence of secularism — or at least, one salient kind. That is, the secularist may have positive and negative attitudes towards particular arrangements of reality; but Being, the Real, the Ultimate, the Numinous — these things, just in themselves (insofar as they have meaning at all), are blanks. (I think there are connections, here, between secularism in this sense, and a lack of interest in “contact with reality” of the type I described here; but that’s another story.)

I do want to point, though, at a different family of responses that seem to me both interesting, and less obviously secular in this sense.

Fromm (1956) distinguishes between “father love” and “mother love.” (To be clear: these are archetypes that actual mothers, fathers, non-gendered parents, non-parents, etc can express to different degrees. Indeed, if we wanted to do more to avoid the gendered connotations, we could just rename them, maybe to something like “assessment love” and “acceptance love.”) Fromm’s archetypal father orients towards his child from a place of expectation and assessment. He loves as the child merits. He teaches morality, competence, and interaction with the outside world. Fromm’s archetypal mother, by contrast, relates to her child with unconditional acceptance. She loves no matter what. She teaches security, self-loyalty, home. (See also parallels with Darwall’s (1977) “appraisal respect” vs. “recognition respect” — though there are many differences, too).

“Father love,” for many, is easy to understand. Love, one might think, is an evaluative attitude that one directs towards things with certain properties (namely, lovable ones) and not others. Thus, to warrant love, the child needs to be a particular way. So too with the Real, for the secularist. If the Real, or some part of it, is pretty and nice, great: the secularist will affirm it. But if the Real is something else, the thing to be done is to reshape it until it’s better. In this sense, the Real is approached centrally as raw material (here I think of Rob Wiblin’s recent tweet: “I’m a spiritual person in that I want to convert all the stars into machines that produce the greatest possible amount of moral value”).

But mother love seems, on its face, more mysterious. What sort of evaluative attitude is unconditional in this way? Indeed, more broadly, relationships of “unconditional love” raise some of the same issues that Ginsberg’s holiness does: that is, they risk negating the sense in which meaningfully positive evaluative attitude should be responsive to the properties of their object (reflecting, for example, when those properties are bad). And one wonders (as the devil wondered about Job) whether the attitude in question is really so unconditional after all.

But is mother love unconditionally positive? Maybe in a sense. But a better word might be: “unconditionally committed” or “unconditionally loyal” (thanks to Katja Grace for suggesting this framing). That is, we can imagine an archetypal mother who cares, like the archetypal father, about the child’s virtue, who is pained by the child’s mistakes, and so forth; and whose love, in this sense, is far from a blanket of uniform affirmation (though whether this fits Fromm’s mother mold, I’m not sure). But where the archetypal father might, let us suppose, give up on the child, if some standard is not met, the mother will not. That is, the mother is always, in some sense, loyal to the child; on the child’s team; always, in some sense, caring; paying attention.

Exactly how to understand this sort of unconditional loyalty, I’m not sure; and it may, ultimately, have problems similar to unconditional holiness (and obviously, ideals of unconditional loyalty, commitment, love etc in actual human contexts have their own issues). But we have, at least, a robust kind of human acquaintance with “mother love” of various kinds, and I wonder if it might suggest less secular (in my sense above) responses — perhaps even ancient and familiar responses — to the problems of evil I’ve discussed.

We might look for other examples, too, of forms of love that seem to transcend and encompass something’s faults, without denying them. Here I think of this scene from Angels in America — one of my favorites of all time (spoilers at link; and hard to understand if you don’t know the play). And also, of the father’s forgiveness in the parable of the prodigal son. (For a set of moving reflections on the parable, I recommend Nouwen (1994).)

“And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” (Luke, 15:21-22). 
Painting by Rembrandt, source here.

Chesterton, in Orthodoxy (chapter 5) talks about loyalty as well, and about loving things before they are lovable:

“My acceptance of the universe is not optimism, it is more like patriotism. It is a matter of primary loyalty. The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave behind because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more … What we need is not the cold acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and a fiercer discontent.”

I don’t think responses in this vein — that is, forms of love, loyalty, commitment, and forgiveness towards the Real, despite its faults — fully capture what’s going on with experiences of e.g., holiness, sacredness, reverence, or receptivity (thanks to Katja Grace for suggesting distinctions in this respect). Nor am I committed to (or especially interested in) claims about the “secularism” of such responses. But faced with problems of evil, theistic or no, I think these responses might have a role to play.

19

17 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:02 AM
New Comment

I did not hate this post, but I also spent much of my time thinking it felt like one of the many threads all over the internet discussing would Boromir from LOTR do this particular thing or how come Saruman didn't do this other particular thing.

It just seems, like most theology, a lot of discussion based upon the rules and structures of something that might as well be LOTR. That is not to say I'm just right out asserting some strict atheist position and "lol religion and spirituality". However, this all mostly seems to hang on an a set of conceptions about the world that doesn't obviously seem to exist...at least particularly to the most of the audience this essay is going to reach.

Of course, this stems from my point of view that questions the very existence of spirituality as something to be pondered over as anything more than memetic hazards traveling through time and quirks of brain construction.

Nietzsche said that after Man killed God*, the angels in their grief carried on trying to worship God - they didn't know what else to do.  That's how non-religious Western spirituality seems to me.  On the one hand, many people** find the idea of a personal God to be incompatible with science - it is impossible to reconcile the Beatitudes with the Red Queen's Race.  The trouble is that ideas like "all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights" and "the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice" are load-bearing parts of our culture but these ideas are based on theology and make no sense at all once that foundation has crumbled.  

Fortunately, we have one saving grace***.  Most people are not greatly bothered by these contradictions.  Human thoughtlessness FTW.

*by rendering God implausible 

** including me

*** so to speak

Much of contemporary spirituality, I think, aims at a certain type of unification or “non-duality.” It aims, that is, to erase or transcend distinctions rather than draw them; to reach the whole, rather than the part. Indeed, to the extent that an “existential” attitude aims, ultimately, to encompass as much of the “whole picture” as possible, some aspiration towards unity seems almost inevitable.

But as we raise the level of abstraction, but wish to persist in some kind of existential affirmation, we will include, and affirm, more and more of the world’s horror, too (until, indeed, we move past what the world is actually like, to what it could be like, and to horrors untold).

 

Here's another riff on this theme: I performed a thought experiment once, which I return to regularly. A “three O” (omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent) God would imply six opposite qualities:

  • nonexistent or omni-failing/entropic
  • omni-unknowing or omni-stupid
  • omni-uncaring or omni-malevolent

(We'll forego the partlys here: partly stupid, partly malevolent, etc. for simplicity.)

The God that does not exist is, by definition, also omni-unknowning and omni-uncaring. (This opposite God, in not existing, would not be capable of failing, misunderstanding, or hating.)  This is the un-God of strong atheism, the zero to the Christian God's infinities. Other religions posit other combinations, including finite partly-gods and alternative Three O's.

By existing, a three O's God implies the nonexistence of the no-O un-God. But the un-God would also not-exist in any universe without God, or any universe with partly-gods. The un-God is not falsifiable because there is no conceivable universe in which it does not not-exist; any existence thereof (or super-nonexistence) would be a deviation of the attributes of the un-God, which would make it no longer the un-God.

And so, any being which acts in entropic, stupid, or malevolent ways serves the un-God, which cannot act because it does not exist, but which can be imagined as an open maw, ever-devouring but never fillable. Thus "Moloch," entropy in every aspect, the "all is vanity, and a chasing after wind" of Ecclesiastes.

I love this thought. This un-god is what I've always called the Void, or Oblivion, or the Death Force. (I actually am a mystic, myself, and have rather idiosyncratic perspectives on spiritual stuff like this, due to personal experiences, but I definitely have noticed the un-god and been disturbed by how few people seem aware of it. In fact, rationalists may be the only people who are aware of it.)

It actually (didn't) show up in one of the final (and best) novels of the old Star Wars canon, Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor by Matthew Stover.

It also (doesn't) show up in the Elder Scrolls series as Sithis, the Void.

My personal definition for "religion" has always been roughly "the belief that values (including ethics, aesthetics, or mores, and I guess including "numinous mysterious holiness") are somehow embedded or expressed in the ontologically fundamental ordering principles of the Universe (maybe, but not necessarily, because some conscious being used such values to choose those principles)". If you believe that, you have some kind of relationship with the problem of evil. If you don't, you don't...

I'm not so sure about the "love" stuff. Personally, I've never thought about whether I was "unconditionally committed" to reality, or about whether I "loved" it in any way. I'm stuck with reality, so why would it matter? Does anybody get to that sort of thought if they don't have something like the problem of evil driving them to it?

Strong upvote from me. I appreciate the decently broad source of quotes and I hope you've read some of that material fully. I think the question is interesting and worth serious pondering, though I'm a bit sceptical as to how much progress on it is really possible outside of individualistic discovery via something like meditation.

Father love and mother love is an interesting way of looking at it. Though it's not clear "Father Love" is actually a thing or just something we projected onto actually existing "Mother Love."

To me actually the problem of evil seems relatively unimportant. Just drop the "omnipotent," which doesn't make much sense anyway. (Why work with infinities when finite things are way more likely?)* The much bigger, much more interesting problem is the lack of communication.

Humans are certainly not the best at speaking or listening. But we understand some things.  You could imagine god explaining things to us at our level, even if only to say: hey, you guys are just getting started; don't worry, nothing makes sense so far, but in about 1000 lifetimes it will.

I have some thoughts / responses to that question, but that's not really the topic here.

* Edit: Not to suggest that this is necessarily the solution, but there are a number of solutions with which I'm fairly satisfied. 

Strong downvote from me. 5000 words and not worth reading. If there was a point in there, I couldn't find it. A lot of talking and not a lot of insight. Wondering about nonsense with not enough criticism. Maybe this this kind of thing passes for philosophy in academia, but I expect better on LessWrong. Philosophy is a diseased discipline and Theology most of all. I am not categorically opposed to discussing some these topics, but is this the best we can do?

This is your atheism talking. Those of us from a different background have gained something from it.

Ironically, I also thought "lots of words and nothing new" because I am familiar with Christianity [EDIT: perhaps more importantly: familiar with Chesterton], and I have already heard all of this, and... hey, can we admit that it actually doesn't answer the original question?

We start with: "If God is so loving and powerful, why do people suffer?"

Then the smarter people have to admit that all standard answers suck, because they are mostly "God is stronger than you, therefore shut up" (which makes sense, pragmatically, but it's actually evidence against God being good... I mean, if this is the best argument you can make for God's goodness, then you simply admit that you don't have any good arguments), or "you are too stupid to distinguish real good from real evil" (which is a motte-and-bailey, because yes there are some ethical dilemmas I have a problem with, but God is obviously failing even in situations where a 3 years old child should be able to distinguish between right and wrong), or "it is a trade-off, allowing evil in universe is a price for human freedom" (which doesn't make sense, because human freedom is limited in all kinds of ways all the time, for example God allows person X to kill person Y, to prevent limiting X's sacred freedom, apparently not realizing that the successful murder limits Y's freedom)...

Then everyone starts using poetic language, to sound deep beyond deep...

And finally, the Stockholm-syndrome solution: given that this is the only reality we have, and we don't have any choice about that anyway, we better believe it is good, even if such belief doesn't make sense, because facing the reality is not helpful. (Except, of course, it is not enough to describe it like this using words, you have to actually feel it. The poetic language is probably an efficient tool to get there.)

Also, describe how humans can love each other. Sure, but we already knew that humans are capable of love and goodness... the question was whether God is, and we still have less than zero evidence for that.

(Atheism just allows you to get out of the dilemma between "good God doesn't make sense, given evidence" and "evil God doesn't make sense", by offering an alternative "there is no God".)

Why, oh, why is so much ink spilt on God?

If one or more exist, then our time is not 100 years but infinite, and our reach not limited to our arms. Worth as much ink as the heat-death of the universe or the eventual extinction of Man, which both rely on the false vacuum not popping before then.

Can you provide sources for the first statement? I couldn't follow the reasoning. How would the existence of a God create an infinite life-time?

Not the existence of a God, but the actions of specific Gods.

The book of the Christian God promises eternal existence to all instead of oblivion, and a really good eternal existence to those who follow the Way of love and choose to accept that God's offer of redemption.

The book of the Muslim God promises a similar pair of eternal destinations.

Those are just the two most famous promises of infinite lifetime tied to interpretations of the holy books of religions which focus on specific Gods. They're extraordinary claims, and so they require extraordinary evidence, but any decently plausible promise of an infinite lifetime is worth enough investigation to falsify it.

I think the best solution to the problem of evil is the Gnostic one. There is indeed a perfectly good ground of being, but we are separated from it by a blind idiot god that keeps us prisoner. This world is not the Real, but only a pale imitation, an inevitable accident, and the Holy is the points of transcendent light within us, the motes of hope and meaning that guide us towards attempting to return to the Real. Of course, bound by the chains of matter, we must use matter's principles in order to do so. The original Gnostics thought that one could through spiritual striving and dedication to their savior achieve a rebirth beyond the borders of the fallen world; I think the only real hope is to incarnate the Real world here, within this one, via this world's technology - the loopholes that the babbling Void cannot hide from us. It all adds up to matrioshka brains in the end, of course, no matter how you describe it.

[+][comment deleted]22d 1