Jun 29, 2008

Framework of a Theodicy: Omnipotence Afresh

God has all power to bring about His purposes. God has the power to bring about any situation or thing consistent with the natures of eternal existences.

So what could those eternal principles and laws regarding eternal existences be? What if something inside of us that was a main component to our moral agency was eternally existent? Consider that God put this eternal moral agent, likely what most refer to as a spirit, into our bodies which were formed by natural processes. Here is what one man of God has said about this possibility: “Who told you that man did not exist in like manner upon the same principles [of eternality as God]? Man does exist upon the same principles. God made a tabernacle and put a spirit into it and it became a living soul…How does it read in the Hebrew? It does not say in the Hebrew that God created the spirit of man. It says ‘God made man out of the earth and put into him Adam’s spirit and so became a living body.’ The mind…which man possesses is coeternal with God himself.”

The implications of this statement are larger than the scope of the logical problem of evil, but this Christian thinker at least makes the case that his point of view fits within the given Judeo-Christian umbrella, albeit not traditional. If we assume that people are actually agents in and of themselves from an eternal perspective, and that God works in all-power consistent with the natures of eternal existences, we have the framework to solve the logical problem of evil.

I cite the following, written by an ancient Jew, “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy.” He explains that, in order to attain this joy, there must be “an opposition in all things. If not so…righteousness…could not be brought to pass neither wickedness nor holiness…neither good nor bad…neither happiness nor misery.” He goes on to state that “to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man…the Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself. Wherefore man could not act for himself save it should be that he was enticed by the one or the other [good or bad].”

Thus, if we are allowed to be moral agents, to choose between good and bad (obviously influenced by the biological make-up of our bodies and our experiences) then that agency would be destroyed if one of the choices were removed; we could only choose good things. In other words, truly free agents could not exist in a world without bad, because if limits were imposed on the experiences of moral agents, they would no longer have agency.

I believe that we are moral agents. I believe that we are seriously influenced by our environments, biochemical makeup, neural physiology, and psychological constructs, but that there is an underlying moral agency, spirit, whatever you want to call it, that says, “You can be more than you currently are. You are not defined by your biology: you are defined by your moral capacity. You are defined by your agency. And you can become something more through God.” Instead of being a bag of meat with a name and some pre-programmed responses, we become an individual with potential.

There will likely be more discussion on agency later, but for the present, we will assume that people’s internal moral compass, however influenced by our experiences, is at least some part uncreated—eternal. We will also recognize that in order to have a moral compass, there must be an opposition, opportunities to experience badness, or else we would be pointing north no matter what direction we were facing.

To add to these points we have the commonly held notion that we will live after this life, and somehow this suffering will help us get there. These thoughts were addressed by an earlier reader, who mentioned an analogy about intentionally burning a forest (pain) to allow newer, greater growth (reward). Another reader commented, referring to an afterlife, “As bad as things can get here, perhaps there is something valuable to be gained from the experience.” This has been called by some philosophers as a “soul-making” theodicy; our souls are being made into something better through our painful experiences. This is the final point of my conclusion of the logical problem of evil.

Paulsen, a philosopher with whom I personally resonate organizes a solution to the Logical Problem of Evil, as follows:

  1. God exists. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly loving, and created (or organized) our world employing eternally existing entities and structures
  2. evils occur
  3. A perfectly loving being prevents all the evil he can without thereby preventing some greater good or causing some greater evil
  4. an omnipotent being can do anything consistent with the natures of eternal existences
  5. Thus, given the natures of eternal existences, whatever evils occur are either:
    a) unpreventable absolutely,
    b) unpreventable by God, but not absolutely (ie, unpreventable by God because He will not remove our agency, but those who have the agency could prevent them), or
    c) unpreventable by God without thereby preventing some greater good or causing some greater evil.

Now, I recognize that this isn’t necessarily the most comforting solution. There are still a lot of questions to be asked about “why must I suffer at all?” There are many instances where merely solving the Logical problem of evil doesn’t seem helpful. This treatise may not heal the wounded heart, but it hopefully gives breath to the troubled intellect. I hope eventually that I have something to console those who have experienced poignant pain; for I do believe that there are answers in spiritual belief systems for many questions. All I have done with this is shown that an all-loving God is not logically incompatible with the evils of this world.

There are likely believing readers who will not agree with some of the declarations I make, distancing myself from various forms of Greek metaphysics, passed-on through theologies. I allow all men to continue to worship and draw closer to God in their own respective ways, and only offer my views as an opportunity to think about things in a slightly different way.

There are likely readers who feel that I have overlooked some detail, since thinkers have been struggling with the Logical Problem of Evil since at least the time of Epicurus. However, the parts of the Western thought tradition, stemming from our Greek ancestors, that are troublesome are ones I have never had personal reason to believe; hence, their elimination provides for a cogent argument. Whether or not one accepts the principles as I’ve laid out here is another matter. I have read other explanations on the matter that are not satisfying to me, but this does not mean they are not satisfying to others or in general. Though I may not fit the stereotype for many believers in God, I hope I’ve presented the case that there are at least some who do have a cogent conclusion to the logical problem of evil.

The pragmatic problem of evil, however, is sometimes more difficult to answer. The pragmatic problem of evil asks, “But why doesn’t God stop this particular suffering, since it doesn’t seem to be helping me grow. It seems useless and inane.” I will post some thoughts on this topic, but I hope as I progress this blog, more answers come out of the woodwork. I can’t possibly answer all the instances of suffering, but I will try to provide comfort to those who believe in a loving God in the face of the evils and pains of the world.

Jun 22, 2008

God and the Problem of Evil: Unpacking and Repacking

The following is an outline for the discussion on the logical problem of evil and God. I will be populating this post with links as I have time to write. Please do not comment on this short post, because I will be deleting it and re-creating it to keep it as the forerunning outline.

The Problem of Evil

The Logical Problem of Evil: Hume and Flew

Roots and Underlying Assumptions: What led to this Problem?

Old Assumptions Anew: Finding a Solution

Resolution to the Logical Problem of Evil

Comments on Theodicy and the Pragmatic Problem of Evil

Jun 19, 2008

Creation Redefined: Implications

The previous post was concerned with creatio ex materia, or creation from preexisting stuff. This is relevant to the Problem of Evil because ex nihilo creation—creation from absolute nothing—makes God the Ultimate source of evil: all things came from Him and hence He and He alone is responsible for both the good and evil in the universe.

This post lays some groundwork for another aspect of the Problem of Evil, God’s omnipotence. In a nutshell, the issue is this: if God is capable of doing all things and does not prevent evil, how can He be loving or good? I feel the key to this question lies in what God is capable of doing, so here I will ask questions about the scope of possibilities regarding God’s interaction with the universe.

To start off, we recognize that there are apparent laws that govern the universe, at least physically speaking. One man of God taught that this extends to spiritual matters as well, saying there are “laws of eternal and self-existent principles.” In other words, there is an ordered framework of laws for eternal existences (And I am not referring to just those laws we've discovered so-far; we can make the assumption also that the laws of nature could entail a lot more than we understand at this point). In any case, we must ask, does God supersede these laws, or does He work within them? Can He break them? Can He do anything that we can think of (or that He can think of), or are there limits beyond the logical impossibilities?

For example, can God make the stuff into whatever He wants? Can He make a proton act like an electron or give a photon mass? I don't know. But if He couldn't, would that make God any less powerful? As I will explain, for me the answer is no. God would not be less able to save us, to create worlds, to do His work. But it would make the absolutist form of omnipotence in need of redefinition.

At this point, I realize that some people cringe at altering perfect absolutist omnipotence: all things that are logically possible are possible. When I first read the idea that God can’t do everything, I shuddered. How could you trust or worship a being that couldn’t do everything logically possible?

Before I explain this I want to be clear on one issue and will not budge: irrevocably God's power is great enough to accomplish His purposes. Also, I recognize there are a variety of opinions on this matter; I do not wish to offend, but I want to try to explain this idea. I am aware that many readers may not agree with this, but I submit it for the sake of open-mindedness.

Returning to our discussion, we realize that most agree there are some things which God cannot do. Much of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim world supports the notion that God cannot lie: this is one thing that is logically possible, but not possible for God (see Heb 6:18 for one Christian example). Whether or not He is unable to lie or it is a self-imposed restriction, He cannot do it—and that’s a good thing, I think we’ll agree.

So, we see that at times it appears better for God to abstain from even some logically possible actions. There are two possibilities to evaluate: 1) Are there other actions that, while being logically possible, God avoids in order bring about some greater good? Or 2) are there actions that He does not undertake because somehow, given His higher laws, they are not actually logically possible?

A simple, but hopefully helpful analogy follows: suppose God had all power in the universe to do anything logically possible, except make neon-green giraffes. Would that make Him any less powerful? Would it make Him any less venerable? For me, God and the world wouldn't change at all: we would still have complete confidence in Him and His power. In all points that make God our God—the reasons why a relationship or knowledge of Him would be important—dismantling absolutist omnipotence for an omnipotence that works within an environment, pragmatically does not diminish God in any way. (We’d each have to answer these questions; for my part, I hope it wouldn't make a difference: it would be similar to thinking less of George Washington for having wooden teeth—his wooden teeth had no bearing on the measure of his greatness.)

But now imagine instead that there were actually a law we didn’t know about, which governed preexisting entities: the Law of Colored Giraffes. This law states it is physically impossible in this Universe to have a neon-green giraffe. Now we look again at God's omnipotence: God can now do everything possible in the Universe, and is therefore omnipotent. Hence, our understanding of what laws God follows informs our understanding of the definition of omnipotence. And this can have bearing on the Problem of Evil as we look at the degree to which God is free or willing to interrupt, override, or alter our decisions that cause pain to others.

For the more scientifically musing reader, I've included some of my own musings on some of these thoughts in the first comment. The views there are only my musings, which views could change on whims, but perhaps they may provide a little food for thought.

Jun 11, 2008

Ex Nihilism: Getting to the Beginning

Aristotelian metaphysics provides some insight into how many people conceive of God. Aristotle taught that if something happened, then something else must have made it happen. We follow the reasoning back until we reach the ultimate, the primordial Something: God, the Unmoved Mover that started everything else in motion. Now, Aristotle thought that matter was already there, but the Gnostics, though they couldn't deny the simplicity of Aristotle's logic hundreds of years later, insisted that matter itself would have to be a happening that required a beginning. For the Gnostics, Aristotle's Unmoved Mover was the Monad: the One, the beginning who was the beginning alone, creating all the universe from nothing—the ex nihilo creation.

There may be things that are appealing about the explanation of creation ex nihilo, or creation out of nothing, following Gnostic logic. By the end of the second century, the appeal of this reasoning had made inroads within Christian theologies, inroads which have grown now somewhat ubiquitous in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologies. In the face of so many who espouse this belief, I state that I don't see why it must be the only way to view God's creative power, as some claim. For me, it presents more problems.

If we assume that God created all things out of nothing, omnipotently, we likely assume He has unlimited creative powers. We also assume that He created it with some purpose: most link their belief in God with some form of afterlife, usually a heaven and hell . We go to heaven to glorify God forever and to hell to be punished forever. I will not talk in depth about my problems with that statement now, but I will say, if God intended us to go to Heaven forever, why did He not just create us already there? Why bother suffering? If He could create anything logically imaginable (no married bachelors or other illogical conundrums), He could have created us with the memory or experience or development or righteousness or whatever we needed from the very beginning to bypass all the hurt. Whatever may be beneficial from suffering and evil could be avoided by a logical, omnipotent ex nihilo creator. Whatever learning we would need could be programmed into us, like kung fu being programmed into Keanu Reeves' matrixed brain.

The problem with this Gnostic view of ex nihilo is that it makes God the ultimate perpetrator instead of the ultimate source of goodness. If we can create things ex nihilo, why bother with means? Ever? If all we were created for in this life is some ends, but that ends could have already been made from the beginning, for me, life seems to lose some of the purpose that is discovered through belief in God. God could have made me already in heaven, but didn't. This move undermines His love.

Therefore, I reject the notion of ex nihilo creation by absolute omnipotence, and I do so on philosophical, scientific, scriptural, and spiritual grounds. This only serves as my explanation as to why I choose to believe as I do, and is not intended to discount those who believe in boundless ex nihilo creation.

Momentarily leaving the realm of philosophical arguments, I turn to scientific laws. I believe in the law of conservation of matter. In relatively unscientific terms, this law says that matter is not created or destroyed. In other words, I believe that matter is eternal—it has always been around. For the scientifically oriented reader, I assure them that matter, energy, strings, branes—or whatever stuff the fabric of the cosmos is really made up of, deep down inside—that stuff is what I'm referring to; there has always been stuff around. Stuff will always be around. (Define "always"? Read Stephen Hawking: he opens up possibilities that are fascinating.) Regardless, there is room for my belief based on scientific grounds.

Some readers may insist that their holy writ suggests that God unequivocally created everything out of nothing. I will presume that my readership is likely most familiar with the Judeo-Christian creation. As a note to the reader, I will not be arguing at this time for any stances on the authority, symbolism, fallibility, or humanity of holy writ: for my purposes here, I will assume that the Pentateuchal description of creation is credible enough to be discussed to our advantage.

As I understand the Hebrew text that recorded the account, the word throughout the creative account usually interpreted as "create" comes from the Hebrew word "bārā'" which means to fashion, to shape, to organize, etc. In other words, God organized things from a chaotic or entropic state to fit His needs. So, without diving into the other symbolism and wording in that record, I find plenty of room to allow for my belief on scriptural grounds. I feel I am vindicated in the Judeo-Christian text; however I recognize that there passages in the Quran which I cannot exegete.

On spiritual grounds all I can write is that the experiences that I have had with God allow room for such a theory. I do not claim absolute truth, for I cannot claim at this point how the world came to be, but I do claim it being a valid option, spiritually.

So, if we believe that the universe was created from already existing something, it opens up a number of possibilities: maybe the universe was all wound up into a Planck-length spot, and maybe God initiated a massive dispensation of the stuff, an exodus, if I may wax allusive. Or maybe He knew of the explosion and used what He needed for His purposes. Or maybe hyperdimensionality provides an alternative entrance for matter which God facilitated. For me, there are numerous possibilities, enriched by science, philosophy, scripture, and personal experience.

The possibility that I hold on to about God's creation is that He organized all (or at least some significant portion) of the flying debris that now composes the universe into something to suit His purposes. Now this cannot be proven or disproven by science, but the more I study science, the more I learn about possible tools that God may have used.

Now, my point with this post was not to explain why not believing in ex nihilo creation helps solve the logical problem of evil. That will come soon. Rather, my point was, observing that most who believe in God seem to take the stance of ex nihilo creation, that someone such as I who does not believe in this Gnostic calculation may still have valid beliefs. I submit that, if we remove some of the restraints on God's attributes that even great thinkers have imposed, we may find innumerable possibilities of the existence of God unfolding.

Now, I have used observations from various fields to suggest that my belief system is rational. No matter how rational, how scientific, or how cogent our argument, we can’t let that undermine the truth that the only way to know something that cannot be proven by science is through God. May we continue to use our intellect, studying the sciences and educating ourselves, remembering that the knowledge we can acquire here is a pale shadow of the knowledge that is available from a benevolent God.

And a short post-script, I would like to state that I find no contradictions between God and science. I will likely have more posts on this statement, because it seems to be troublesome for a good number of investigators on the topic of God. I have read a number of people's views on the matter, coming from varying belief systems, some obviously closed-minded, fixated on their eloquent point of view: for example, some of the authors of the recent John Templeton Foundation essays on the question "Does science make belief in God obsolete?" Though I will not be arguing for the compatibility of God and science here, I restate: I don't find the God I believe in to be in anyway incompatible with science.

That said, I have heard of other views of God that seem to me to be incompatible with science. But even with that statement, I believe that people with such notions of God can still be educated: perhaps they are satisfied with some explanations that do not satisfy me. I try to use my brain as logically and as thoroughly as I can. No matter the belief system, I need to encourage my intellectual and spiritual pursuit and the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of others: let them worship, study, or dwell upon how, where, or what they may. I would only expect to receive the same. Together we can thrive.

I will likely write similar statements again and again, because I believe that searching for understanding is one of the most valuable pursuits we can have in this life, regardless of belief system. More comments about God and science will come later.

Jun 5, 2008

Historical Roots and Weeds

At the outset, I acknowledge that my viewpoints do not necessarily represent some readers' conceptions of God. My point is not to discount differing religious opinions, but to share what I have come to understand in my pursuit of truth. At the same time, I want to assure the reader that many of the theological points that I will share hereafter are not my own concoctions. I am not just trying to calculate a God that fits what I want; rather, in this blog I will set forth the theology I have found best suits what I understand and have experienced of God.

I am a big fan of Plato and Aristotle. But being a big fan of them, I have no duty to espouse everything they taught. Much of the Western thought tradition sinks its roots into Platonic and Aristotelian thought, and without it, we would not have the scientific and social progress of our time. However, no matter how brilliant Plato and Aristotle were, assuming without question that their logical postulations can perfectly depict God would be, in my mind, a risky proposition.

From what we can tell, Plato was somewhat dissatisfied with the depictions of the Greek gods, perhaps cuing from his teacher, Socrates, who was tried and killed for allegedly leading away youth with his disbelief in the popular mythological understanding of the gods. Plato felt that God should be the infinite goodness, all positive attributes in their perfected forms, in stark contrast to the clumsy, blundering, moody, deceivable deities of the popular mythology. His student Aristotle and other neo-Platonists philosophers pushed the idea further, teaching that the greatest possible being would be immovable and unaffectable. Aristotle thought of God as an Unmoved Mover: one who creates and changes all, but cannot be changed or made subject to anything—to intellect or emotions, like love, pity, sadness, etc— and so completely other-worldly that He cannot be known or comprehended. We can follow these ideas through intellectual tradition, albeit with a few tweaks in semantics, to a God described as being abstract, absolute, transcendent, immanent, unknowable, without body, parts, or passions. As a response, the Gnostic philosophers were brewing opposing thoughts, with alternative views to creation, to contrast the abstracts of metaphysics.

Many early Christians, such as Origen, a devout Platonic Christian, and Augustine, a student of Greek philosophy and the most prominent early Christian theologian, espoused many of these philosophies, including those regarding God's attributes. Augustine showed not only his approval of Greek metaphysics but also his view of its compatibility with Christianity when he said in his True Religion, “If these men [Greek philosophers] could have had this life over again with us…They would have become Christians, with the change of a few words and statements.”

Much of Western religious text comes from these thought traditions, as manifested incrementally by the formation of creeds and the dominance of stalwart theologians (such as Anselm and Aquinas) whose views reflected these philosophies. These same philosophies have become a part of many of the arguments for and against God and, from what I can tell, have also mingled with other non-Christian religious belief systems.

I respect those who uphold such tenants, but I humbly submit that such attribution to God brings irresolvable questions for me. There are many that refer to part, but not all, of the Neo-Platonic philosophical description of God or to the Gnostic responses. I recognize that there are many who say that God loves but is still immovable and unknowable. I readily recognize that many believers in God have rejected the idea that He feels no emotion and therefore doesn’t love them in the sense that we think of loving, but they still see the need to hold on to other Neo-Platonic attributes. However, I don’t find the need to restrict my understanding of God’s attributes within Neo-platonic ideas espoused by theologians that followed suit, but rather I harness my understanding of God more often from spiritual processes, some of which are outlined in previous posts. I submit that this understanding of God, which I attempt to describe with this blog, is philosophically cogent, theologically sound, and pragmatically meaningful.

At this time, the reader will note that I am addressing the Judeo-Christian branch of theology, for it is under that umbrella that I classify myself. Searching in Judeo-Christian texts of God, I personally have found little to enforce the idea that God fits the descriptions of the purely Neo-Platonic or purely gnostic mindsets. One scholar of post-Biblical history and theology, George Foot Moore asserts that "Palestinian Judaism was innocent...of an abstract or transcendent or any other sort of a philosophical idea of god." And a historian-theologian of Christianity J.N.D. Kelly writes, "There is an extraordinary contrast, for example, between the versions of the Church's teaching given by the second-century Apostolic Fathers and by an accomplished fifth-century theologian like Cyril of Alexandria." Even the great Christian scholar Edwin Hatch observed, in a work that is considered a classic on the topic, that "a large part of what are sometimes called Christian doctrines, and many usages which have prevailed and continue to prevail in the Christian Church, are in reality Greek theories and Greek usages changed in form and colour by the influence of primitive Christianity, but in their essence Greek still." Even more fascinating is the paradox that arises from the trial of Galileo: he was put on trial not for contradicting the Bible, but for contradicting Aristotle—we know that the intellectual roots of our sciences, Greek philosophers, had flaws that we were able to recognize and uproot. These statements, among many others, suggest to me that there is a possibility that some depictions of God rooted in Neo-Platonic or Gnostic thought might be laden with human intervention and error. Though Greek philosophies provide us with the intellectual framework to pursue science (finding personally that science cannot prove or deny God), I don’t find it necessary to use their theological framework to pursue God.

For open-mindedness, I choose not to restrict the possibilities of God by forcing His attributes to be something (incomprehensible, unknowable, immovable) outside of what I have experienced. I, personally, must place the Neo-Platonic and gnostic depictions of God back on the shelf, with all respect, nevertheless accepting the grand sum of Greek philosophers’ contributions, knowing that without those philosophers our society wouldn’t have the intellectual foundation to pursue science as we now pursue. The God I and others trust is knowable, and as I have stated before, actively loving, and if God is those things, for me it could signify that other attributes of God from the philosophical tradition of Aristotle might be in error. Indeed Tertullian, an early Christian leader, taught, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?…Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!” The irony is that Tertullian wanted so little to do with Neo-Platonism, that he espoused thoughts of the opposing Gnosticism. Indeed with the further investment of these abstracted thoughts, Chadwick records that one early Christian monk cried out, upon being instructed that God had not the personal nature which he had previously believed “Woe is me! They have taken my God away from me, . . . and I know not whom to adore or to address.”

Able to free myself of the restraints placed on God by espousing all of the Neo-Platonic and Gnostic thought traditions, I am able to see more clearly some of the complications, and the major one for me I will likely address in my next post. I have left a traditional framework, and I intend to construct another with subsequent posts.

This discussion is foundational to understanding what has been, for me, a way to resolve the Logical Problem of Evil. To me it seems that removing those philosophical restrictions I’ve mentioned above relieves much of the problem. This is not to say that there aren't other solutions to the Logical Problem of Evil. C.S. Lewis wrote an excellent book called The Problem of Pain in which he argues many of the points I would eventually like to make far better than I could. There are also a number of defenses of the Logical Problem of Evil that I have come across. I suppose that many authors who have taken on the logical problem of evil argue that my approach of distancing myself from Neo-Platonic and Gnostic thought is unnecessary. But with the questions that I have, for me, it makes all the difference.