Wednesday, November 28, 2007

This was a triumph.

I'm making a note here:

Perhaps it's true that insensibility to worry is the key to success in certain spheres. It's certainly true that knowing I'd done an irredeemably crappy job preparing for a math presentation helped me present it well; with no way to avoid embarrassment on that front, I didn't have to devote my mental energy to worries. Of course, it's probably better to be insensible on account of confidence than on account of having nothing to lose.

Either way, I think it's time to outgrow my comfortable diffidence in some respects.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Evil, Trust and Futility

Darwin and Scott Carson responded promptly to my last post, and I've since been pondering these matters more deeply procrastinating on the follow-up. My apologies for the breach of argumentative etiquette.

Dr. Carson's post brings up an important point: that the sort of logical possibility needed is not simply that some being or state of affairs could exist, but that it could consistently be created by a God of the sort under discussion. This leads him to propose that free will is created to be uncaused (and not foreknowable), and that therefore it would not be logically possible to create a free cosmos conditioned to be without sin.

I'm not quite convinced that something created could truly be uncaused, so I have my doubts as to the coherency of the proposal; but since I haven't figured out a clear way to argue this, the presumption ought to be that such a thing is a logically consistent defense to the Problem of Evil. However, I don't see how it squares with the Catholic theology that Dr. Carson and others presumably wish to uphold- with the notion of divine providence and any form of predestination, and particularly with the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

In particular, if one wants to then affirm that Mary had free will and was without sin, one has to deny that this was truly predestined; in Dr. Carson's theology, one would suppose that God bestowed these special graces on her and just hoped that she would give the fiat at the proper time. For if God could predestine a single free-willed creature for moral perfection, it is hard to imagine how He could not have done so for all. Yet most theologies concerning the Immaculate Conception do include this sort of predestination in her case (see for example Fr. Edward Oakes' recent piece on the First Things blog). I don't rule out the possibility of reconciling all this with a notion of uncaused and unforeknowable free will, but it seems a rather awkward tightrope to walk.

Finally, it intrigues me* that the relevant section of the Catechism seems to support my first alternative, that such a God might well prefer a world with sin, suffering, redemption and damnation to even a freely sinless cosmos:
But why did God not create a world so perfect that no evil could exist in it? With infinite power God could always create something better. But with infinite wisdom and goodness God freely willed to create a world "in a state of journeying" towards its ultimate perfection...

Only at the end, when our partial knowledge ceases, when we see God "face to face", will we fully know the ways by which - even through the dramas of evil and sin - God has guided his creation to that definitive sabbath rest for which he created heaven and earth.
*By "it intrigues me" I mean, of course, that it gratifies my ego to see that once again my analysis of a theological issue coincides with the historical consensus of many Catholics who've thought more carefully than I. I'm a sucker for intellectual affirmation.

After watching a bit of this discussion play out, I'm more convinced than ever of one aspect of the Problem of Evil: that in addition to the logical question we've been discussing, there is a psychological problem posed by the witness of evil and suffering in our world- and what's more, there is a problem of this sort for both Christians and materialist atheists. (I assume that it raises problems in other religious traditions as well, but I'm even less qualified to comment there.)

The defense which seems to me (from the outside, admittedly) most coherent and consistent with Catholic dogma is, again, that God prefers the cosmic drama to simple harmony, presumably according to criteria better than ours. And yet many find themselves, not merely disagreeing, but discomfited by this idea. I suggest that this is due to the second of the Problems of Evil, the psychological problem of trusting the Creator when experiencing the agony of the Creation. At least on the face of it, a God who prefers this cosmos to one without evil could be more easily blamed for its worst happenings than could a God who is doing the best He can within the constraints of a free will entirely opaque to Him. And it doesn't help one's faith or one's sanity to be blaming one's deity.

The fact that this can be distinguished from the logical problem in no way diminishes its importance; a grieving mother may have a crisis of faith to which the arguments of theodicy are quite irrelevant. And yet answering the latter does not answer the former. I used to say that God's response to the Problem of Evil was to come and suffer the entire gamut Himself. But of course, this only answered the psychological Problem, not the logical One; at issue is not His response to an inevitable evil but His refusal to avert that evil at its very inception.

But I won't say much more about the psychological problem that evil poses for believers, because the surest way to become a smug ass about a change of worldviews is to psychoanalyze those who still hold my previous one. Instead, I want to ponder the problem that evil poses for a nonbeliever like me.

For a materialist atheist, suffering, death, and anything I recognize as moral evil exist without any justified hope of their solution. It is hard to fight a battle one knows to be futile; if in the end this entire Universe will fizzle out to nothingness, if nothing human can survive the heat death of entropy, then what does it matter even whether life on Earth survives or goes extinct?

It's important to note, pace many religious critiques of atheism, that this is in fact a psychological rather than a logical problem. There is nothing inconsistent in having goals and hopes for even a finite and mortal world; if goodness and beauty are human constructs that will one day cease to exist entirely, one can still quite reasonably hope that there will be more rather than less of these in the near and far future. But somehow it affects us on a human level to believe that the story of humanity is one with a dismal ending, no matter how many billions of years it may take.

The modern atheists, it seems, have known this sort of despair for at least a century; and they have tried various strategies to overcome it.

Bertrand Russell's A Free Man's Worship is an example worth noting: using his highest rhetoric, he romanticizes human reason and makes of the cosmos a tragic narrative with Man at the center. This is, of course, a fiction according to his own ideas; there is simply no narrative to be found in the universe. And all other attempts that I have seen to motivate the atheist mind in the face of futility share the same pattern: a noble lie believed by the teller, a fiction that turns the blind Universe into a theater. Two other examples are Nietzsche's Eternal Recurrence and Sartre's insistence that we choose our very selves (and thus bear responsibility for the whole of human nature). These, all of these, are fictions by materialist lights; and yet they motivate one to a certain kind of life which is far preferable to that motivated by despair.

But I do not want to subscribe to a fiction, and I do not want to succumb to despair; so I keep hoping that the next ideal will stand my scrutiny. I suppose that in the realm of the mind I'm the worst kind of romantic: the disillusioned one.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Problem of Sin

It seems that the Problem of Evil has been kicking around the Catholic blogosphere again, so I planned to do a little Philosophy Karaoke and explain why I think it has more substance than Darwin Catholic or Scott Carson accord it. However, I found that what I had to say had already been addressed by Michael Liccione in a perspicacious essay well worth your time.

I do want to expand, though, on something which Dr. Liccione remarks and which I think others have missed: that the free will of created beings is not a defense against the problem of evil, because we could have been created to freely choose the good. Liccione writes that our free will might have been circumscribed to choose between good alternatives, rather than between good and evil; I assert something stronger- that we could have been equipped with the full range of free will (whatever that is supposed to mean) and yet created such as to always freely choose the good.

If it is logically possible for a being with free will to always choose the good (as Christians generally affirm), and if an omniscient, omnipotent God knows in the act of creation whether a free-willed being will in fact do so, then it is perfectly possible for such a God to create a being who always freely chooses the good (and in fact Catholics believe that their God has done so- ever heard of Mary?). It is thus possible for such a God to create a cosmos full of freely innocent beings, rather than freely fallen beings.

So arguing that God allows moral evil out of respect for free will is a red herring, since respect for free will does not preclude a universe without sin. There are, then, only two viable defenses of the existence of sin. The first is that God might have created, in addition to this universe, every possible universe which is better than ours in that regard; thus He would be absolved of the charge of creating a worse world rather than a better one. But very few Christians seem willing to believe in such an extravagant multiverse.

The second defense is significantly more intriguing: that perhaps an infinitely good God prefers a cosmos of sin and redemption to a cosmos of innocence- even to the extent, if there is a nonempty Hell, of preferring a cosmos with unredeemed sin to one without it. This is the track that Liccione follows in his essay, eventually asserting that such a preference is a mystery; and I think that it is the track that an honest Christianity has to take, however discomfiting it may seem.

As for me, why should I after all care about the philosophical defense of a God I no longer believe in? Well, for one thing, I find the discussion interesting in itself; more importantly, I prefer that people examine their thinking and believe things that make more sense rather than less (so I would rather you subscribe to an old, developed, battle-tested theology than one of the naive hybrids of religion and modern Western culture, but I'd rather have you do the latter than subscribe to a religion hermetically sealed off from the rest of human knowledge). I may be a defective apostate, but I just don't feel the need to scoff.

N.B. I'm indebted to the philosopher J.L. Mackie for the original line of thought (see The Miracle of Theism), although I depart from his analysis with the two possible defenses; in particular, he dismisses the second out of hand for no reason other than its strangeness to him. I should also note that the problem of evil played no significant role in my aversion from the Church, and is only something I thought seriously about thereafter.

P.S. Next up: happiness and noble lies...

Monday, November 05, 2007

The starting point for philosophical reflection is not, as some had supposed, some state of total equanimity with respect to every question. This neutrality is what we should like to have; yet it is not only unattainable in practice, but a complete fiction in theory. The very criteria by which we accept some forms of inference rather than others do not come to us a priori; they themselves must have been determined to some degree before the inquiry began.

We do, however, have a starting point, albeit one that embarrasses too many of us: it is the cultural and intellectual milieu we have been educated in. Our very modes of thought do not derive from ourselves in the first place; and refusing to acknowledge this is the most naive self-deception. Consider the youthful rebel who casts off the shackles of his parents' ideology and revels in the newfound freedom of his thought- which happens to precisely match that of his new friends, or the book he has just read for the first time. He is no freer than he was before, and in fact is much less well-equipped to think critically in the new terms he has just learned than in the old ones he has rejected.

This is by no means an encouragement to retain all one's old opinions and patterns of thought; for in fact, there are ways in which progress is made. Thankfully, some of the modes of thought that we have been raised with can effectively critique, contradict and transcend themselves. Socrates did not attack his interlocutors with ideas foreign to Athenian mores, but with those very ideas they had been raised to accept. For my part, I found the seeds of my own apostasy not in any external critique, but in the Catholic account of reason and the unity of truth (although other paths in Catholic thought do not lead where I have gone, and it is quite possible for one to remain an intellectually honest Catholic).

And I want also to stress that I am no relativist; I say that we should consciously begin our foundational inquiries within our own intellectual culture not because each approach is valid, but because we might as well acknowledge that this is in fact where we begin, whether we like it or not.