Tuesday, August 13, 2013


A sketch of a Theodicy

The religions and philosophies of the world are stuffed with symbols of transformation, transformation that is not simply change of form but genuine transmutation of the simple into the complex, the less evolved into the more evolved, the lower into the higher, the primitive into the advanced, the base into the noble, the less perfect into the more perfect and so on. Scanning the universe as a whole, insofar as we are able to do this, it seems obvious that some process of refinement, sublimation or at least complexification is going on. The broad lines of development from hydrogen and helium atoms to us are fairly clear. It is obvious that no rational account can be given of the nature of this development, but that should not stop us trying to interpret it, indeed it is pusillanimous not to try.
The whole process seems to be conditioned by an avoidance of the sort of mechanical routine and repetitive stability that human intellect appears to require. The principle seems to be that the initial conditions of the universe and the laws that govern it are set so that the maximum variety is permitted along with the greatest possible unity. Of course, this is an observation that applies only to the bit of the cosmos that we can observe; it may be that quite different rules apply in other regions, but we have no choice but to start with what we know. It seems further that extreme creative fertility is the result of this combination of just these initial conditions with just these overarching laws. This extreme fertility is in many ways the source of what is called ‘evil’ for it is in the conflict between different organisms (we exclude material processes for the purposes of brevity) that the phenomenon arises; and it seems to arise because each organism is programmed to make its living in a particular specialised way and this inevitably brings it into conflict with other, different organisms doing the same thing but in different ways. But it is not only the extreme variety of nature that leads to this conflict, it is also the specialisation, the mechanisation, one could almost say, by means of which each organism hones its range of capabilities to an extreme degree and invests them with absolute, exclusive worth. One can almost see these capabilities, the strategies and skills by means of which an organism makes its way in the world and achieves what it achieves, as ‘values’ – at all events they are values for the organism concerned. It is inevitable, therefore, that nature be a tissue of conflicting values. The values of the crocodile are not those of the wildebeest, the values of the virus are not those of the human being. Conflict is inevitable and so is all the pain and suffering that characterises the biosphere. But it is entirely comprehensible that these features of the natural world should be precisely the features that confer upon it the exuberant creativity that we as human beings so admire and prize in our world.
It is when this creativity works in the human species that we begin to make a distinction between the drive to variety in man and that in other parts of nature. The variety of human cultures, first, and the variety of human life-aims, second, lead to the same kind of conflict within the human species that we note between the other non-human species on this planet. They lead to the same kind of intense specialisation, the same kind of intense rivalry, the same kind of myopic concentration on a range of activities and values to the exclusion of all others; and since all human societies and individuals are going about their business with the same intense zeal, albeit in different directions, it is inevitable that severe conflict should arise, conflict that we dignify with the name of ‘evil’ when we see it leading to the worst kinds of brutality, violence, cruelty and so on. It is just possible that the notion of ‘evil’ here begins to take on some of the sense of the notion of ‘chaos’ in cutting-edge science.
When we contemplate the general brutality and nastiness of much of human life we ask the question ‘how can an all-powerful and all-benevolent God permit this?' It is strange that we do not ask this question with regard to the non-sentient aspects of the universe; we do not even ask it of the sentient but non-human parts of our world. Surely we should be able to see that the conflict and the resulting suffering are integral parts of the nature of the universe as we find it and are indeed vital to its volcanic creativity. It would seem that if you will the end of this kind of exuberance in creation, you have to will the means of great conflict. The so-called problem of evil actually boils down to this conflict and this extreme creativity of the universe we know. If the universe were less creative, it would be probably more mechanical, more rigid, less interesting. It can surely be no accident that we as creatures loathe and detest repetition, routine, leaden sameness and so on. Of course we need these things, for without them, there is no life at all; but when they become the essence of our reality, we revolt or lie down and die. There is no greater burden than the burden of predictable sameness and mechanical routine. This knowledge is deeply engrained in us as creatures. The principle of endless variety and open-ended creativity seems to be woven into the warp and woof of what we are. We simply know that the world cannot be “the Eternal Return of the Same”. The price of all this variety is, of course, a great deal of discomfort, a great deal of what looks like useless pain and suffering. It is easy for creatures for whom comfort is a priority to regard the stable conditions in which their comfort is permitted as the ‘good’ and unstable conditions in which their comfort is attacked as ‘evil’. That this is a very short-sighted view of things naturally does not occur to them, since they invest all their energies in increasing the comfort and decreasing the discomfort. But this is just the particular life-plan that they are saddled with and since they are saddled with a life-plan, they necessarily come into conflict with different life-plans and different modes of existence that militate against their own. But far from adding up to any metaphysical ‘evil’ this is merely an example of the universal conflict that arises because of great variety and creativity. To call it ‘evil’ merely because it interferes with our particular human craving for comfort is simply stupid.
It is stupid because it suggests that human moral judgements are normative for the entire universe.
So what could redeem this universal process of boundless and unrestrained creativity in which each creature is in conflict with each other creature and most care not a fig for the damage they inflict upon their rivals? The answer must lie in the principle of sublimation: out of the universal struggle to favour life-plans and modes of existence (what the evolutionists call ‘the struggle for survival’) arises a drive to higher and higher forms of being within creation. If creation is to be regarded as the concrete image of the ineffable divine, and if creation reveals a striving for this image to be an ever more faithful approximation to likeness, then we can expect what we see: this inexhaustible invention of forms in wild profusion with a mainstream of increasingly complex forms rising to ever more representative likeness of the creator.

It may well be that in this sense, Leibniz was right: we have the best of all possible worlds, because it is the most creative and the most susceptible of coming up with forms that are worthy of representing the creator, rather than most in conformity with our desire for comfort and with the human morality we erect upon that desire. It seems to me that the human race has to commit itself to the notion of its own perpetual transformation. We are turning into something higher and this creative process is inevitably painful, inevitably a disruption for those whose immediate comfort here and now is an absolute priority. But hey, the universe is constituted this way; who are we to take issue with the nature of the cosmos that gave rise to us? Who are we to claim that our particular life-plan with its particular values is normative for the rest of creation? We are merely limited creatures making a living like all the rest. Conflict and pain are part of the deal. What redeems us as human beings is precisely that we can rise above the mere making of a living and see the means of our own transformation into something higher. It is too easy to pooh-pooh the notion of something higher and decry it as comforting delusion; but those who have grasped the essential process of nature, insofar as these are encoded in their own human nature, do not need to prove that of which they are convinced. Part of the essence of what it means to be human is the inchoate conviction, nothing more than a hunch, but decisive nonetheless, that we are turning into something else – something that potentially turns our life-plan into a mode of being that exploits the entire range of reality and not just a little corner of it as at present.

The Problem of Evil

After reading Mackie’s article on the problem of evil (Evil and Omnipotence, first published in Mind - Vol. 64, issue 254, April 1955) it became clear to me that with people who have no imagination and therefore no understanding of the real problems associated with the divinity, there is really no discussion possible. Mackie is one of those persons who believe, sincerely no doubt, that logic-chopping gets rid of problems, or solves them by dissolving them. This credulous faith in language is touching but not very imaginative.
I would like to respond to Mackie by means of a thought-experiment that may look like theological blah-blah but that is in fact just an exercise in imagining alternative possibilities. I don’t expect the Mackie sort of mind to be able to go along with such fantasies, but some of my other readers may. Anyway, let’s see where such a thought-experiment could take us in considering the so-called problem of evil.
Mackie seems to be saying that you can only hold the two theses – ‘God is omnipotent’ and ‘God is good’ – by means of equivocating over one or other or both of the basic notions. It seems not to have occurred to him at all, that the notions of good and evil may have no meaning at all when applied to the divine, in spite of the clear meaning they have for us. It seems not to have occurred to him that concepts such as omnipotence and goodness may simply be irrelevant to God as he is in himself, because there is no point in comparing him with anything, and goodness and powerfulness are scaling – therefore comparative – concepts. To paraphrase one of the old mystics, God cannot be good, for if he were good, he could be better. It is entirely possible, assuming that God exists, that the categories of good and evil are the only categories by means of which we, limited creatures that we are, can make more than mechanical sense of the world, but that to apply them to God is simply as naive an anthropomorphism as supposing that God has human features and a human body. The problem of evil, so-called, in fact implies a tacit comparison of ourselves with God, and him with us, and a moral judgement in favour of ourselves.
The so-called problem of evil derives from the egoist's suspicion - and wish - that he might be God's superior.
Let’s pursue this simple-minded thought-experiment: imagine the state of good and evil before God created the universe. How could God, in himself, have had any use for the notions of good and evil, except as aspects of himself? But if he’s not comparing himself to anyone or anything else, what’s the point of the concepts? What earthly use was there for concepts such as good and evil before the arrival of life on the scene? Even if we imagine trying to apply these concepts in the time of the dinosaurs, it’s still hopeless. How can we apply the concepts to the world before the arrival of sentient life? We can’t. Why then should we suppose that they have any sense at all outside of the sphere of embodied human preoccupation? Good and evil only come into being with human perceptions of the world. Just as much as the steam-engine, they are our invention and no more appropriate than steam-engines as a universal standard.
There is, of course, a simple way to combine God’s goodness with his all-powerfulness in a manner which makes use of the concept ‘good’ such that it appeals to human beings and yet remains entirely compatible with the concept of omnipotence, again used in a way that appeals to humans. Unfortunately, this way of solving the problem requires humility, patience, trust and love, all the Christian virtues, in fact, that are in very short supply in scientific and philosophical circles. They are virtually non-existent in the ego. This way of solving the problem involves saying to ourselves that we do not understand what God is up to with regard to us, but that we trust him to work it all out. The world is after all the sort of place that inspires confidence, ‘evil’ (a wholly human category) notwithstanding. It seems to me that most of the so-called problems associated with the existence of God and with the coherence of all his theistic properties is that the minds that see such problems are stuck in outmoded visions of the world: they are all essentially stuck in the Newtonian world as monolithic state of affairs to be grasped and understood in its entirety by the rational ego. They still have not grown into the universe of uninterrupted, seamless change in which man is merely a transient creature who is becoming something else, just as all other creatures on this planet have so far been transient creatures who were slowly turning (and turned) into something else. To repeat: if metaphysical evil is a useless concept in a world before the arrival of man, why should it suddenly turn useful after his arrival except on account of its usefulness to him? There is no use here in changing the rules and equating evil with any useless pain and suffering, because no-one can judge as to the ultimate usefulness or uselessness of suffering.
But let’s put a bit of flesh on these abstract bones. Suppose that God is in the process of a creative work and that the embodied life of humans is only a relatively early stage in the process, not as early, say, as the absence of life or the presence of only non-sentient life on the planet, but early nonetheless. Since the concepts ‘good’ and ‘evil’ clearly have no meaning at all in a universe of non-sentient beings, the concepts came into existence with sentient life and more specifically, with sentient life endowed with language. Before that time, the problem of evil, so-called, did not exist. So we must ask ourselves, why did the problem come into existence? Clearly it has to have something to do with the emergence of sentient, language-endowed life, human life, in short and the ability of such life to experience pain and suffering. But why should human life have created the problem of evil? If it didn't exist before the arrival of people, what made it exist? Was it suffering plus language or was it just suffering plus sentience, self-consciousness? Was it both of these or was it only one? Was it perhaps just language? This seems unlikely, since one can be humanly but inchoately outraged at useless pain and suffering without necessarily being able to articulate one’s outrage in words. So it must be self-consciousness, then. The possession of language only serves to communicate the concept to other sentient beings. But then again, without language, there seems no possibility of making the essential judgements that equate pain and suffering with metaphysical evil. So perhaps we need both sentience and language.
How can evil have come into the world with the emergence of sentience and language? This seems to me to be the nub of the matter. The solution to the problem will be found, in my opinion, in the extent to which the sentient individual is able to name him- or herself and to name the essential goods of his or her existence. This will determine the extent to which the individual regards him- or herself as a finished being, as a stable state of affairs, rather than as a stage in a process, as a given, rather than as a signpost, as an authority – perhaps as great as that of God himself, so great is the perceived power of language – rather than as a creature in the process of being created and therefore not only unfinished, but also totally dependent. If we are finished creatures, the end-station of a process of creation, then clearly the life we have is far from perfect and if we have been specifically created as these finished creatures, then we must see the creator as incompetent or malicious. If we are unfinished creatures, however, then evil is possibly only the index of our incompleteness. There we are: it seems to me that the existence of evil in the world has to do with the status of man as unfinished creation. Now this is something that the scientific or rationalising philosopher simply cannot or will not understand. Both would find it even more difficult to understand the possibility that creation is always unfinished. But let’s think a bit more and a bit more deeply about the matter.
Is there any more suffering in the world now than in the age of the dinosaurs? Clearly, there are not more natural calamities, there is not more brutality, not more disease, not more bloodshed, not more early death, not more exploitation of the weak by the strong and so on. So how is there evil all of a sudden? The answer must lie in the extent to which human beings believe themselves to be suffering unnecessarily. But what is necessary suffering? Clearly the notion has not much sense. No suffering is necessary in the sense that suffering is analytically connected with some aspect of human life. Suffering is in fact connected with human birth, but is it necessarily so connected? Clearly it is not, since it is not contradictory to say, that a woman had a painless and successful birth. Is suffering necessarily connected with any other result, for example with becoming beautiful? No, again. So what is suffering if not the occasional disagreeable accompaniment or interruption of some of those things in life that we value? Answer: it is the invariable accompaniment to the apparently gratuitous destruction of those things in life that we value. The ultimate evil in life is death, timely or premature, it’s always perceived as evil, as the greatest evil in human existence.
But what if we could perceive death as a benefit? What if we could see it as an inalienable part of the process of creation? If we could do this then we could perhaps begin to perceive suffering as a benefit as well. If we could perceive suffering as a benefit, then we have demoted evil, as understood by humans, to the status of mere apparent evil, and once we have done that it is easy to reconcile evil with the goodness of God – from the human point of view. The whole of creation - and human life is part of that creation - is dependent upon tensions of opposites in every sphere. This tension is no sterile stalemate, in which the opposites cancel each other out; it is a dynamic tension. Small wonder, then that such instability results in the massive sidereal forces that unleash earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves, and other natural catastrophes. Small wonder that there are creatures of the evolutionary process – viruses, sharks, wasps – whose adaptations are in conflict with our well-being. These are part of the world we inhabit and they are part of its creative instability. Our interaction with such a world is on the same terms as the interaction with the world of all other living systems: we thrive on its benefits and have to accept all the other conditions that make these possible. It seems impossible, given the dynamic instability of the tensions of nature and given the exuberant creativity of life, that we should not come into conflict with these things. The question is, would the elimination of these things constitute an abolition of what we call metaphysical evil? The alternative to the dynamic instability and the exuberant creativity of the world seems to be a sort of sterile mechanical stability. This strikes me as far more evil than the richness we in fact have. Any other conception of an evil-free world is going to be based upon perceptions and conceptions of human comfort; and the thought of a universe based upon purely human values is simply nightmarish.  The only alternative to these views (if we insist upon evaluating morally the entire universe rather than pronouncing it to be value-free) seems to be to see so-called evil as only apparent. Evil is an invention of the human point of view that considers itself to be absolutely normative.
How, then could we come to view death and suffering as only apparent evils? The answer to this must be in being able to see evil and suffering – from the human point of view – as good for us from God’s point of view. We have to try and adopt a God’s-eye point of view and try to see everything sub specie aeternitatis. Imagine that God’s work on this planet has something to do with creating creatures endowed with minds of such vastly greater capacities than ours, that we can not even imagine them, though we might extrapolate from our own infirmities and invent creatures entirely lacking them; immortal creatures, cognitively infallible creatures, physically omnipotent creatures, ecologically integrated creatures, morally perfect creatures (as morally perfect as the dinosaurs, perhaps) creatures worthy to rule the material universe… you get the picture. In this, God would not be producing creatures to rival himself, since he would remain the ground and origin of the universe, and any creature would by definition be subservient to him. But he might perhaps be creating creatures who would be free from most of the problems, discomforts and uncertainties of the human condition. Since this goal is so far above us as to be unimaginable, but since we can at least imagine the possibility, let us ask ourselves what kind of world would the half-formed creatures inhabit who represented fairly lowly stages in this process of development but who have a dimly dawning conception of their distant and wonderful destiny? They might just conceivably look like us; and the suffering of their imperfections might just conceivably resemble our sufferings.
Imagine for a moment that the creator is in the business of creating minds, or souls, if you like, to animate the superior creatures sketched above. Imagine also that these souls are already immortal, but very rudimentary, very primitive, very imperfect, mere soul-seeds, so unsure of their status that they are inclined to deny their own existence. Imagine also, that these souls have a mode of existence which is not physical and which is atemporal. Imagine further, that these souls, like God, undergo development without essential change by association with a physical presence – a ‘creation’ –  in time and space. The development is precisely the evolution of the physical system with which they are associated, just as God’s development is associated with a physical universe, although in himself he is infinite potential. The development is self-discovery: becoming aware of what one essentially is without ever arriving at a term. The evolution of life on this planet could be seen in this general scheme of things as the culture-bed for the growth of souls, and the evolution of species as the physical counterpart of that growth. The timeless, placeless, eternal (why not?) souls would grow in consciousness of their own potential and develop by association not with one physical creature, but with many, as the temporal, special characteristics of the particular life with which the soul is briefly associated teaches the soul its lesson in self-awareness. Imagine that our human existence is just one such mode of physical existence with which certain souls are associated. What would be the consequences of supposing that this mode of existence is the only mode of existence that we are ever likely to know? Surely (again, if we are indulging in moral judgement rather than nihilistically pronouncing the whole pageant as meaningless) it would be the judgement that this existence is nasty, painful and tortured, the kind of existence that a malevolent or non-omnipotent God may foist upon the creatures he either delights to torment or else cannot prevent suffering. Alternatively, this existence of ours could be regarded as part of the creative process by means of which we are as souls growing to maturity. Just as children chafe under the lessons that they have to learn in order to live effectively and sometimes consider those that impose such lessons upon them as evil tyrants – or at least enemies, even though they may not be – so we, as imperfect human beings, may perceive the world we live in and the lives we lead as characterised by useless pain and suffering and as therefore either being the work of an evil, omnipotent God, or  the work of a good, but limited God, or as not the work of God at all.
What I am saying is this: it is entirely possible that our conception of evil is the result 1) of our lowly stage of development, our ignorance and feebleness 2) the result of our being in the uncomfortable process of being created and therefore unfinished 3) the result of the creative work of a God who has our long-term interests at heart, but whose job is long and far from over. If we see our lives in this sort of light, then the problem of evil vanishes altogether and we can accept joyfully that “whatever is, is right”. The evil that we know, is evil, but it is in these terms a little evil and indispensable to the greater good. After all, in a world where the soul is immortal and has an immortal destiny, nothing much can be radically evil. Of course, if we were being fattened up and equipped with exquisite sensitivity to pain in order to be subjected to some massive jamboree of torment at the end of evolution, then the problem would be solved in another way, but we have no evidence for any sort of evil other than the normal pain and suffering that we know and this might entirely reasonably be associated with our imperfect understanding of the manner in which we are being created. Merely being able to regard this suffering as part of the creative process drains all the evil out of it. If you find yourself getting hot under the collar at the idea that you are being created and that you are subject to a Creator, then I think you'd better consider the size of your ego and ask yourself whether it may not be rather bloated.

Within such a scheme of things, even the complete destruction of all life on this planet is compatible with the goodness and omnipotence of God: the souls simply relocate, taking their store of wisdom with them. It seems to me inevitable that such an eventuality will befall planet earth sooner or later, probably sooner. It seems to me that embodied human life on this planet has probably reached some sort of end-station. I would not be at all surprised if life were snuffed out by something catastrophic, a comet-strike or something. But assuming the existence of God and the existence of his long-term creative plan, such things are simply more opportunities. To regard them as evil would therefore be over-hasty. In this sort of cosmic view of things, the problem of evil as tussled with by philosophers just evaporates. Evil as a metaphysical concept relies wholly on the ego’s conviction that it understands human life in its entirety. To the eye of faith, however, that sees creation in terms of process and transitory imperfection, and that suspects that its vision of a greater destiny has some substance, evil, by contrast, has no substance at all.