Sunday, October 31, 2010

The lack of evil, the abundance of absence... (2.0)

As I noted in the previous post of this three-part series, it was in the midst of the discussion, which eventually converged on the question of God's "moral goodness" relative to us as moral subjects, that a reader asked, "Is cancer evil or praiseworthy?"

I have engaged that commenter a number of times before--on the topic of animal cognition and human intellection, for example--and quickly replied to him that "Cancer is analogous to cellular gluttony, or greed, depending on your imaginative tastes, and is therefore a species of evil. I hope you are not being misled by visualizing privatio as a genuine divot while a tumor is a bulge." He replied: "That's a good answer - kinda process-like. But what if an equally gluttonous cellular ant[i]-cancer life form is found to eat all cancers?"

I admitted:

I'm not exactly following your line of thought here, but I take your point to be that maybe even evils like tumors can display an intrinsic goodness of their own by seeking to flourish. Hence, even some evils are goods, on a privation theory of evil, which does not seem to be very good for the coherence of that theory. If this is the line you are taking, I have two problems with the scenario.

First, I don't know how much sense it makes to think of tumors in isolation from the organism in which they appear. Even cells seem only to function properly in connection with other cells of their kind, and with the larger surrounding tissue. DNA, increasingly, is seen to be in immensely complex dynamic connection with the whole state of the organism, rather than just being some "selfish" little chemical gremlin riding bodies to propagate itself. Hence, while you could, I suppose, see some goodness in the growth of a tumor as far as the vitality of its cells is concerned, I think that's missing the forest for the trees. Remove a tumor from the body and harvest it in a culture, fine. But then it's no longer a tumor: it's just a bunch of cells with their own functional tendencies. (E.g. A severed hand isn't really a hand anymore, since a hand is a tool of the body.) Further, the tumor cells are parasitic on the host, and therefore actually fails to actualize themselves like they could if they result in the host's death.

Second, using one evil (an anti-tumor) to remedy another evil (other tumorous tissue) is precisely what Christians mean by saying God can bring good out of evil. Just as human agency can see to it, based on human nature's proper ends, that "the evil of tumors" shall not prevail in the end, so too divine agency, based on the consummative glory of God, can and will see to it that "the evil of evil" (so to speak) shall not prevail in the end. The Cross might then be the anti-tumor God used to consume and conquer all evil. Once the anti-tumor is used FOR a higher good, it is no longer an evil: it is a surprising instrument of good. This is rather the inverse of what happens when a tumor is surgically removed from obstructing higher goods (the host's life) is no longer evil: it does not become good but does cease to be evil.

My interlocutor responded: "You’re giving me too much credit. I seldom have a line of reasoning! My thinking ... was simply that cancer is so terrible, yet it is also a corpuscle of life (and God created life). ... I say [cancer] is evil, but it really seems to be built-in to God’s natural order, and thus could seen as praiseworthy by some…."

"It's a tricky question about how to parse God creating cancer," I replied.

I mean, we believe He created the elements out of which cancer is formed. Natural evil only exists because of the Fall. because of a primordial defect in human nature which ramifies to displace all other levels and components of nature. I have a friend (on Facebook, so it's official!) who thinks slugs are amazing and beautiful. And I must concede that just by existing and thriving, they reflect the Creator's goodness. But if you were in a room that was suddenly filled with slugs (yes, I just vommed in my mouth), you'd die, and slugs would be a kind of evil. Likewise, dirt is good in a lowly sense, but when it forms a landslide and kills a town of people, it's a natural evil. Hence, while prolific tissue is good in its own way, its an evil in connection with the human organism. The problem of the Fall seems to be that all things are vulnerable to each in improper ways.

A bit later the formidable James Chastek weighed in on the evil of cancer:

Cancer has a likeness to poison, and taken in this way Augustine's observation is helpful: "if poison were evil in itself, it would kill the snake first". The idea is that it is not the thing taken absolutely or in its nature that is evil (since in this case it would destroy itself first) but rather the disharmony or incompatibility of two things. In fact, the evil consists not in the cancer taken as cancer (for then it would be evil even if it were not in a man's body; and the tumor would consume itself first) but in the corruption of a man who has the tumor. But if its evil consists precisely in this corruption, then the being as such (of both the corrupter and corrupted) is good, as Augustine proves in Confessions Book VII chap. 12....

There is nothing wrong in saying "cancer is evil", but it is not a statement about the nature of the thing, but about its incompatibility. God did in fact create things that were incompatible with each other, and it was good that he did so. Here at the bottom rung of existence, to be is to move and be immersed in becoming and temporality. The universe would not have been complete without something at the bottom, and this bottom rung of existence would not be possible without some things passing away to give rise to others. Human beings are only bothered by this to the extent that we do not exist wholly on this lowest level of existence.

The cancer topic did not resurface, to my knowledge, in this combox, but it did resurface--care of the same commenter--in the combox of a subsequent post by Dr Feser about God's moral obligations (the post I shall discuss in the third installment of this series). The commenter quoted from Feser's post on God's moral obligations--

Thus, Aquinas, says, “as ‘it belongs to the best to produce the best,’ it is not fitting that the supreme goodness of God should produce things without giving them their perfection. Now a thing's ultimate perfection consists in the attainment of its end. Therefore it belongs to the Divine goodness, as it brought things into existence, so to lead them to their end.” (ST I.103.1)
and replied:

So, aggressive cancer IS praiseworthy since it perfectly achieves its end - death of its host. The quote may satisfy the philosopher's intellect as he piously kneels before God in praise, but it does not so resonate with the whole emotional psyche - it demeans one's view of such a God. To a great degree, this is the key problem better handled by other theisms. I'll bet hospice priests sound an awful lot like process theologians. ... We had discussed cancer a few comboxes back, but I saw no strong arguments either way on its being of God and so praiseworthy.

Due to a tangential discussion in the combox about animal suffering, I believe the commenter in question--the cancer-worrier, as I shall call him--was getting a bit agitated, which is why he replied so snidely to some attempts to address the problem of evil in a fallen world:

Praise God from whom all cancer, sharks, and gratuitous excruciating and pointless animal suffering flows. So, my theological challenge to the tenets of simplicity and Ferser/Aquinas's [sic] God is nothing more than whining that I am not as strong as a Stoic.

Another reader decided to intervene, replying to the cancer-worrier:

Cancerous cells are not separate beings, but parts of beings. In seeking the natural end, you must ask what the cell is naturally ordered toward. It is natural for the cell to divide; but it is also natural for it to cease dividing after a time. Cancerous cells are thus an evil, since they represent a privation of the natural good of limited cell division.

That any help?

After having read a very fine essay by David Hart on evil in the light of the Gospel, the cancer-worrier replied, with no small amount of disdain, that the only consistently voiced Christian response to evil is:

Buck up and cheer up, the more suffering you endure on earth, the more rewarded you will be after you die. (And hey, lose that stupid concern over senseless animal suffering.) The conversation of ... [evil and theology makes] it ever more clear that agnosticism is the most rational approach to theology.

He also replied to the other commenter's "That any help?" in a curt fashion: "Nope, not in the least. It might satisfy a dogmatic Essentialist, but surely you are aware that there are other metaphysical knife cuts which give very different ontological status of the actuality of cancer. The Friar ain’t the only metaphysician out there, my man."

By now my eyebrows were arched and my fingers itchy, so I reposted mine and Chastek's replies about cancer from the earlier combox. I also pointed out that, just as an evil can be transfigured into a means of higher good by God, in the larger context of all things seeking their end in Him, so, conversely, an otherwise neutral and/or good phenomenon (like cell reproduction) can be disfigured into an evil by the misalignment of natural ends by the impact of moral evil (as propagated by humans and demons).

I was also disappointed with the tone the cancer-worrier was bringing to the discussion, so I decided to go on the offensive. I claimed that the cancer-worrier's

assertion that it is ever more clear that agnosticism is the best position to take reveals two rather pedestrian things: i) an agnostic believes his agnosticism is praiseworthy, and ii) this agnostic is ethically obliged *not* to be convinced, which of course means further reasoning is a bit of a waste of time.

I would like to add two positive points in reply to the kind of problems [the cancer-worrier] is advancing.

First, it has always, always, always been at the core of the Christian Gospel that Christ really and truly suffered and died, and did so for our sakes. This means the Gospel has always been about the truth that God is radically present in "the problem of evil." Hence, to say that the Christian God doesn't care or doesn't understand, is disingenuous.

Second, if any metaphysic being disputed here gives grounds for praising or condoning cancer, it is process theology. For on that theology, all things inevitably and naturally 'emerge' from the primordial knot of, well… emergence. All things have their legitimate place at the ontological table, simply because they have managed to emerge themselves to the table. If everything must be met as an infinitely rich process that connects with everything else––free from those crusty ideas like essence and finality and absolutes––, then everything must be allowed to "work itself out." We need to respect "the way of the Godhead" as much as "the way of the tiger" as much as "the way of the panda"––and as much as "the way of the tumor". If it's speciesism to favor human flourishing to non-human flourishing, then, on process thought, it's just a more subtle form of speciesism to favor the procession of dog-webs to the tumor-webs in them.

He replied courteously enough: "Good thinking, as always, Codge," and added that he is not a happy agnostic, but seeks "a compassionate embrace of life that legitimately addresses all suffering creatures." He went on to complain, mildly, that process theology does not get discussed much at Feser's blog. So I decided to advance my positive replies into a direct rebuttal:

I know you dislike how little air time [process theology] gets here, but I would like to note that I am at least attempting to make what I think is a fundamental critique of it in this debate.

Here we go again: if nothing has an enduring, substantial nature (i.e. essence), then nothing has ends truly proportionate to that nature (i.e. no finality). If nothing has proper ends, then nothing anything does can be a deviation from the thing's "proper form and function." Ergo, a tumor is just as 'natural' to 'human nature' as child birth (cue, e.g., the ideology of abortion, which treats pregnancy like an STD!), growth, etc. The upshot is that process metaphysics has no substance on which to hang its complaints about natural evil(s). Which means you don't either. You are appalled that cancer might be construed as a natural good "in its own right", since it is manifestly an assault on the proper finality of, say, your dog's health, or any dog's health. But by what measure (ratio, logos, forma) do you state that cancer is a deviation (privatio) from canine health? It's all "just part of the process," after all.

Finally, I think you are reifying privatio, which I and others have said is a mistake. Falsity presupposes truth and privatio boni (defect in good) presupposes bonum naturae (good of nature). To imagine that just because cancer flourishes, it has a legitimate, original teleological design by God is as confused as saying that death is so designed because it so prevalent and inevitable. Death is the quintessential privatio of the bonum vitae, but I don't possibly see how you can twist Catholic theology into saying that death has a proper share of finality in God's creation just because it occurs with regularity in creation. The same goes for cancer: it's primarily a defect relative to a substantial good and only accidentally a case of finality in se.

This is as much of the cancer problem as I think I shall discuss. I have highlighted it not only because it is an interesting topic in its own right, but also because it connects to the topic of the third part of this series: God's moral obligations. Is God morally obliged to cure cancer? Is God morally obligated (to us) at all?

Stay tuned.


Interceptor Dog said...

Hi Dear,

This is really interesting take on the concept. I never thought of it that way. I came across this site recently which I think it will be a great use of new ideas and informations.

just thinking said...

Hey Codge

I never know exactly which blog to reach you at, but I see this is it – bookmarked w/ Feser. BTW, judging from the limited responses, I spammed Ed’s Spider post and its W4 double with comments related to you. I will copy them here for your readers:

From Ed’s blogsite

Codger, a Nice post.

I may have to go over and lurk at the neo-cons only site, too. On second thought, there is probably enough self-certainty to deal with here.

Your take on form, matter, and potency was enlightening, even for a non-essentialist like I think I am. I did not know an essence was a matter of degree, like, this is more human than that, or this is more formally complex, so better art than that. So a wonderfully complex work of sculpture evoking an out-of-body proprioceptive vertigo-like emotion is purchased from the Guggenheim and placed in a schoolyard playground by a wealthy benefactor who thought its intricate extensive weavings would help build stamina *in * kids’ bodies. Again, I see this as formal essence does not imply one and only one end, and the exact nature of the form itself is not a constant, even for solid matter artifacts.

I suppose an expert on the role of essentialist metaphysics in art interpretation might answer the above with a tome on aesthetics, but I would invoke Pirsig’s spirit and comment that writing about beauty is seldom pretty.

I was brought up Catholic, and I probably put above average time and effort studying the writings of its saints and priests (never Aquinas, though, as he was never recommended to me). If I was to affiliate myself, it might be more with Franciscans, though if they too are chained to Aquinas as most Catholic thinkers seem to be, I might rebel if they seem to subjucate the man of Assisi to the one from Aquinas.

If the "lure of the divine" is what makes PT appealing to you--i.e. that God is constantly energizing all things to draw them to Himself--…

I see the PT God luring us, not to his essence, but to experience ever more creativity with the greater novelty and adventure it brings forth through the efforts and decisions of caring subjects seeking to advance the world we inhabit. God’s luring at any moment advances us, as we experience living, living well, and living better. He is with us and feels us as together, we surpass our objectivity with ever-richer subjectivity.

Part 1

just thinking said...

Part 2

And from his doublepost at W4 Iwhere I must admit, I could not resist the temptation to comment!)

Keith Ward paraphrases Kant saying faith consists in 'theoretical agnosticism, but practical commitment.' This is consonant with so much biblical text on the nature of faith and our proper response to creation. I cannot see why this upsets so many; surely no one is certain in their belief in the true nature of God. (Thanks to the Codgitator for reminding us of this link)

I am going to go way out on a limb here at W4 and propose that we consider other religions/belief systems that likewise speak of God as ineffable, unfathomable, yet the cause of natural order and so moral direction. From a different website on philosophy, I urge you folks here to listen to this lecture and see the clear unity of thought with Kant.

There is nothing new under the sun, we only need look around.


For those here not wishing to listen to a lecture on Buddhism, I would at least urge you to go to 25 min into the Burke Lecture link to see just how Buddhist Kant's TI really is (not to mention Hume).

And still related to Kant

Was it the absolutely simple God of classical theism that raised the disgusted worldwide revolt against the rampant pedophilia within the clerical ranks of the catholic church of that God, or more accurately the outrage of the community of humanity that said it is intolerable in society.

Kant says to act as though what you do would be a universal imperative. In this manner, we are continuing where our ancestral cousins left off…

(Scroll halfway down for a good vid discussion with the author.)

And hey, thanks for the lively discussion of Buddhist and Kantian metaphysics – very revealing!

I always find you to be quite open-minded with my thinking (as much as you can allow yourself). Despit Ed’s chastizing me for misuse of neocon, I think my initial comments about the majority of W4 frequenters was correct.

Anyway, I’ll check back here for anything you want to add.

BTW, I had the insight today that the greed-induced bubbles that keep blowing up our economy is quite analogous to the hemangiosarcoma cancer tumors that keep erupting on their host tumor – Sissy lost her spleen to it, and in a few months will probably suffer as it attacks another organ – she is a GOOD dog.