Friday, October 29, 2010

The lack of evil, the abundance of absence... (1.0)

Over the last couple weeks at Dr Feser's blog, there has been an ongoing discussion of the problem of evil for theism. The key post, "Law's 'evil-god challenge'", is Dr Feser's rebuttal of an argument proposed by Stephen Law. According to Feser (I have not retained the original italics):

Law claims in his article that “even if most of the popular arguments for the existence of God do provide grounds for supposing that there is some sort of supernatural intelligence behind the universe, they fail to provide much clue as to its moral character.” In particular, Law says, even if a design argument could show that such an intelligence exists, it could no more show that the intelligence in question is supremely benevolent than that it is supremely malevolent. In fact, he suggests, the overall evidence such arguments appeal to should lead us away from belief in a supremely benevolent supernatural intelligence. Law allows that what is often labeled the “logical problem” of evil – which supposes that the existence of evil is strictly incompatible with the existence of a good God – may not pose a serious challenge to theism. But he thinks the “evidential problem” of evil – which assumes only that the existence of evil is strong evidence against the existence of a good God – does pose a serious challenge, at least given that there are no strong arguments for the existence of such a God. ...

So far all of that is just standard atheist argumentation, and Law’s overall position takes it for granted. ... Law’s innovation is to suggest, first, that the hypothesis of an “evil god” – an omnipotent, omniscient, but supremely malevolent intelligence – is at least as well supported as the hypothesis of a supremely good God. And if a skeptic were to pose against such a hypothesis the challenge of an evidential “problem of good” – that is, if a skeptic were to ask why a supremely malevolent intelligence would allow the good that exists in the world – the defender of an “evil god” hypothesis could offer “reverse theodicies” which parallel the theodicies put forward by theists. He could say, for example, that free will makes possible certain evils that an evil god couldn’t realize without it; that certain evils presuppose the existence of good; that the evil god intends the world to be a vale of soul-destruction, which requires that there be some good in it so that we can be tormented by its loss; and so forth.

Now, Law is happy to acknowledge that such defenses of the evil god hypothesis would not be very strong. But he thinks they are no weaker than the parallel attempts to defend the existence of a good God. There is, he says, a conceptual and evidential “symmetry” between the two views. But everyone, including theists, acknowledges that there is no good reason to believe in the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and supremely malevolent intelligence. So, shouldn’t they also acknowledge that there is no good reason to believe in a supremely good God? Isn’t the one view as unreasonable as the other? That is Law’s “evil-god challenge.”

In the first prong of his rebuttal, Feser says that

central to classical philosophy and to the classical theist tradition that it informed is the thesis that evil is a privation, the absence of a good that would otherwise obtain rather than a positive reality in its own right. Accordingly, for classical theism, there simply is no symmetry between good and evil of the sort that Law’s argument requires. Astonishingly, though, Law’s article does not even consider, much less respond to, this core element of the classical theist position, despite the fact that he evidently regards his argument as a challenge to all forms of theism, and not just to non-classical forms.

In an earlier exchange, Law had responded to Feser's initial reaction to the argument, thus:

Fesser’s [sic] “refutation” of my evil god argument is awful:

(i) it depends on the privation view of evil, which is wrong. (Why not flip this and say good is a privation of evil?!) Actually, *some* evils, like blindness, are best seen as privations of goods. But many appear not merely to be merely privations. And in fact in some cases it is more natural to see the good as a privation of evil (look up “peace” in the dictionary). That evil is in every case nothing more than a privation of some good is a myth that even many theists reject (philosopher Tim Mawson, for example).

He then adds two further objections to Feser's rebuttal concerning the privation view of evil, which Feser addresses in turn. I do not wish to reproduce the entire post here, so I will focus only on the first point: Law's dismissal of the privation view of evil. In the combox I said, "I would like to point out that the problem of evil for advancing atheism (PEA) rests on a privation theory of evil. This is because the PEA recognizes gross deficits in what *should be* the good work of an All-Good God." Here is how the PEA might run formally:

1. An all-good God acts in accord with goodness.

2. Creation is the act of an all-good God.

3. Creation contains evils.

4. Therefore the act of divine creation fails to concord with goodness.

5. Hence, either creation is not the work of an all-good God or no such God exists.

The problem is that the atheist has no way of establishing just *how good* God's creation should be. In this way, it's basically a Spinozan or Plotinian plea against theism. For if any of God's acts must wholly express his omnibenevolence, then creation qua divine act must express unbounded goodness. For the atheist, creation can't be evil and be the act of an all-good God. As God's act, it should display goods we don't see in it: a privation objection.

If the actual world had fewer evils in it than we witness, would it be a satisfactorily good world to refute the PEA? Unlikely. For then that world would still have deficits relative to some imaginably less-evil (i.e. better world) which cannot be accounted for without recourse either to the standard theistic response that an all-good God can and shall bring even greater good out of evil or to atheism. At bottom, the atheist wants to know why God hasn't created the best of all possible worlds. Unfortunately, that is an incoherent concept and God is not obliged to create such a fiction in the first place. Creation adds nothing to the goodness of Being as it subsists wholly in God and hence creation cannot detract from it.

Later in the combox, the esteemed Brandon wrote:

...privations and negations are not the same. You have negation whenever you have things that are different from each other. You only have privation when you have a lack or deficiency of something, i.e., when something is missing or has failed. (Hence Codgitator's point that the problem of evil, taken as an atheistic argument, requires taking evils as privations, because in the face of any evil that the problem considers, it always requires saying that there should be goods in the world that aren't there, i.e., that the evil is a lack or deficiency.)

On the post itself: More and more I have begun to think that the convertibility of good and being is one of the most important philosophical theses to insist upon; a truly immense number of problematic claims can be traced back to the denial of it.

Eventually, the discourse came to center on the question of God's goodness--is God a "good moral agent" like we are supposed to be? And if not, does He have any obligations to us? I encourage you to peruse the combox yourself, but, as I say, I will limit myself here to my own responses to the topic.

On the goodness of God, I would like to mention that the classical conception of goodness is that of an entity actualizing itself in accord with ('towards') its proper goals. A good beer is one that actualizes what beer drinking aims to achieve: satiety and pleasure. A good brewer is one that achieves good beer. This is why "a good beer" is just as often called "a real beer" and "a good man" is also referred to as "a real man" (or "a man in full")––parallels that once again point to the convertibility of ens and bonum, a convertibility I heartily second (following Brandon) must be reinstated as a key axiom in philosophy of religion and metaphysics. One related musing:

Again: A good bow and arrow is one that actually tends to result in accurate shots. A good doctor is one who actually achieves the goal of a doctor: a patient's health. A good lion is one that actually achieves the goals of its kind: maintaining its life by obtaining food and besting enemies, propagating its species by procreation, defending its offspring, etc. And so on.

So how is God good? Well, in so far as His entire act of existence––his so to speak natural self-actualization––entirely coincides with His essence, He wholly achieves what His nature seeks, namely, His own existence. (Hence, even a rock can be called "a good rock" in so far as it persists as a rock: it 'strives' for the perfection of its rockiness, even though it constantly suffers erosion and eventual dissolution.) He is unique in this respect, since all other things not only fail to perfectly actualize their natural ends but also because all other things tend to God as their ultimate end.

Hence, I would not say that-which-is-created is inherently 'evil', only that it is not substantially good, as God is. This is a point Boethius deals with in the Hebdomads and Thomas deals with in his commentary on the same Hebdomads. A thing that is not God is only evil if it fails to "live up to" or "actualize" the goals proper to its nature. As such, evil per se is pure nihil, pure privatio of the one good proper to created entities, namely, an enduring participation in God's one act of being. In so far as no (other) thing is or could possibly be unified in essence and existence, no thing can be good like God. Even so, things are not "evil", as long as they perfectly actualize the ends proper to their nature. (Presumably, things can have their ends altered, miraculously, which may go towards explaining how predators in the Eschaton can be transformed into peaceful beasts without losing their properly bestial majesty.) In any case, I would say that regarding the created as such as evil because it is not God is a Calvinist notion––at least, it was a key irritant in Calvinist logic which drove me away from being a Calvinist.

Not long afterwards, a reader asked, "Is cancer praiseworthy or evil?"

This topic led to a rather lengthy discussion of finality and natural goodness, to which I will devote a subsequent post.


Brandon said...

I should say I really liked your comment on the PEA; it's one of those things that one doesn't think about, but is quite obvious once it's brought to one's attention. It is a point I will occasionally be stealing in the future. :)

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...


I'm glad you want to steal it! It was an epiphany for me, as well. Something about Law's utter scorn for the privation theory triggered my B.S. detector and I realized, by a convoluted cogitation, that it is like a subconscious act of repression for atheists, an ingrained act of sleight of tongue, since if privation is granted, their own grand objection is dissolved in it.