On the Problem of Evil, a Brief Consideration

(In case you can’t tell, I’m slowly working my way through some of MIT’s Open Courseware classes in Philosophy. This stuff is from MIT 24_00, Problems in Philosophy.)

The first reading today is from Dostoevsky, “Rebellion” in The Brothers Karamazov. As a general rule, I don’t like to use fiction to assess philosophical principles, because I’m always anxious about the author’s meaning. Is Dostoevsky asking about the problem of evil? Or is he creating a character who asks a question that, in the author’s mind, is transparently wrong? Who’s making this argument, exactly? It shouldn’t matter, I guess, but it does, because I’d like to be sure that Dostoevsky/Ivan is arguing in good faith.

Well, let’s presume good faith. In any case, “Rebellion” is a good illustration of the ideas from some of the other readings, which are much more formal, if mostly the same. Before we get to the Problem of Evil, I just want to point out this bit:

Beggars, especially genteel beggars, ought never to show themselves, but to ask for charity through the newspapers.

Because I think it’s interesting; it’s an inverse of, for example, a typical argument for the resolution of racism: if only racists just knew some black people, they’d never be able to hate them. Whether it’s Dostoevsky or Ivan that’s the cynic, the idea is well-observed — it’s actually very easy to find something to hate about someone you know very well. It’s also, maybe unknowingly, a good indictment of the problem of respectability politics — the reason that people won’t help each other has nothing to do with the people who need help, and everything to do with a moral insufficiency of the person who can help.

Anyway. The Problem of Evil is something that we’ve all heard, anyway: if God is omnipotent, if God is omniscient, if God is infinitely good, then how can there be suffering?

So, speaking of specifics, Dostoevsky/Ivan means for us to address the Problem, and he doesn’t mean for us to do it abstractly; “Rebellion” is at first a litany of horrors, inflicted primarily on children. Philosophers can engage with the idea of “evil” when we put it like that, in quotation marks — “How can a Just God permit evil?” we’ll say, and then we’ll say something like, “Well, God is like a father who has to permit us to fall off of our bicycles and hurt ourselves so that we grow as humans and in spirit.”

Which is all well and good, but it’s an analogy that somewhat falls apart in the face of the actual specifics of human horror: “How can a Just God permit soldiers to tear a baby from his mother’s arms and then toss him into the air and impale him on their bayonets and laugh while the mother screams as she’s forced to watch?”

“Well, God is like a father who…must permit incalculable suffering so that…uh…”

I suppose if God is like a father, but infinite, and a father must permit some amount of suffering for the sake of the education of his children, then God ought to similarly permit an infinite amount of suffering; though if there’s an infinite amount of education that comes along with it, the source — like Anselm’s spring of compassion — is hidden.

There are a lot of answers to this question, and I hope you’ll pardon me but they’re all terrible unsatisfactory. If we describe “goodness” as “the act of intervening to prevent or ameliorate suffering, according to one’s knowledge of it and ability”, then what possible circumstance could there be in which God, whose knowledge and ability are infinite, wouldn’t intervene to prevent suffering?

You get a lot of things like, “God doesn’t intervene because it would deprive human beings of Free Will, which is the most important thing of all,” sure, except that floods and hurricanes and forest fires cause tremendous suffering, kill children who’ve committed no crime, and God could prevent those without hurting Free Will.

(The responses to that are things like: “God can’t do that because any attempt to intervene directly would only make the universe worse,” for example, or “It’s impossible to create a universe in which the laws of nature are violable,” or something, but these are equally unsatisfactory, it’s God’s universe, and if we believe He’s omnipotent, why shouldn’t we believe He could create a physics that was violable to the benefit of humanity? Indeed, plenty of religious traditions believe that God can, and that He does this very thing, so.)

Another one is that “Evil is necessary for people to do good,” which is slightly better — after all, “goodness” is not a quality of being, but a quality of action (see our definition above); it’s impossible for human beings to be good, only to do good, and we can’t do good if there isn’t suffering.

Nevertheless, while we might say that a mother having her baby mercilessly slaughtered in front of her by taunting soldiers is an opportunity for me to do good by trying to comfort her afterwards, these don’t really seem like comparable acts. That’s an awful lot of suffering, in other words, for me to do a very little bit of good.

Anyway, there’s a lot of arguments here, and people have been hashing them out since it seems like forever, and the only conclusion that fits with how we understand the world is that if God is good, then He’s good in a way that’s beyond our understanding, and of course this is extremely unsatisfying, because saying that God is good in a way that we can’t possibly understand is not substantively different from saying that God isn’t good at all. In fact, the very notion seems to be an object lesson in the fact that we have the power to call something “good” without meaning anything altogether specific by it. It’s a word that conjures certain feelings of satisfaction, maybe, or meaning, or happiness, and so we say “God is good” not as a philosophical thesis, but in order to cement our sense of happiness at some apparent good luck.

To get back to Dostoevsky: of course I don’t know anything about Dostoevsky, and I tried to read Notes from the Underground but reader, I didn’t get more than four chapters in, and I think I only made it three chapters into The Idiot. I still feel comfortable in saying there’s something here that seems to suggest a keen awareness of a kind of powerful human need to know that suffering has meaning, and the deficiency of reason when it comes to explaining how this could possibly be.

It opens up what seems like an interesting possibility: whether we might distinguish the value of “God” as a concept — like the sort of meaningless or empty notion of the Uncreated Being — that has personal or moral utility, precisely because of its emptiness. To explain how the universe started, I posit the existence of a Creator whose origin I’m definitionally forgiven from having to have to explain; to explain how the universe can be just, I posit the existence of a Just God whose justice is, by definition, fundamentally unknowable. In neither case do the explanations actually explain anything, so much as they absolve me of the need for explanation.

I suppose we can imagine this as a tool to support “irrational Theism” — it’s irrational to believe in a Just God, but we need to do it anyway, so we’ve created a notion that permits a rational easing — a way to unwind the tension between the psychological or spiritual need and its conflict with the observable universe.