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.

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