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.


Diogenes said...

Just a brief thought. Mikha'el, you note that "...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."

This is a simple enough statement, but for me it raises some very important questions. Namely, do we ever have a personal reason to believe any particular doctrine? Are we free to discard inconvenient ideas in order to create elbow room for God?

Religion has demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive over long periods of time. I wonder if this is due to the malleability of our personal conceptions of what and who God is.

For example, we can always create chains of logic that demonstrate the possibility that God exists: "if we assume such and such, and God behaves in this manner, and He can't or won't do that, then it is reasonable to think that God exists." As long as some chain of reasoning exists that can place God in an unassailable niche, we can continue to believe. This is convenient to the believer, because if scientific reasoning renders our concept of God invalid, we are free to develop new reasoning patterns that place God in a new niche.

This appears to have happened numerous times throughout history, and we can see it happening even now. Creationists are starting to realize that evolution is a perfectly viable explanation for the apparent order in the universe, the complexity and apparent "intelligent design" of it all. But this poses no problem for believers, because now they can say, "there is no reason for us to expect that God didn't use evolutionary processes to create!" Thus, God is once again placed in a comfortable position until something else upsets the balance.

This post demonstrates one such chain - we create a new definition of omnipotence to include a qualification: God can't or won't break natural laws (which, as an aside, seems to imply that natural laws are omnipotent, not God). Then, happily, we can explain why evils might occur even though God loves us.

Of course, there are other possible explanations. Maybe God doesn't love us. Maybe He doesn't care. Perhaps He doesn't exist. Why should we have reason to believe one explanation more than another?

Mikha'el said...

Thank you, Diogenes. I think your comments provide more insight into general questions about religion. I'll try to keep this coherent, basing the format somewhat off of your comments.

You comment reflects a general trend in human history: the need to understand. If we have a belief, but new knowledge comes and refutes some detail or idea, then we are forced to reconstruct what we understand.

First, though this is not your point, I would like to point out that the philosophies that I introduced are not new: my understanding is that they are, in fact, older than the Greek philosophies. Ex nihilo creation was not held by ancient Hebrews and, to my understanding, neither was absolutist omnipotence. For me, it seems as though they had it right thousands of years ago, but with increasing knowledge, some believers wanted to fit their theology to the growing philosophies and theologies. And this is where your question arises: isn’t it simple enough to just change your beliefs as it is convenient?

I give an analogy. A man goes on a blind date. The friend that set up the date doesn’t know too much about the woman, but tells the man that he thinks that she is “nice” and “sings well.” Perhaps the man found a facebook profile of her, and tried to extract a few pieces of information about her. The man goes on the date. He tries to ask questions to confirm or deny his previous notions of her. To him, she appears somewhat shy, but nice, as the friend supposed.

Now, what if, at this point, the man had decided that he had discovered everything about this woman? If he were to stop trying to understand now, he would have a limited view of who she is. But the man decides to try to keep dating. After another couple dates, he is tenaciously holding on to his preconceived notion of the woman, trying to fit her actions into the framework that he has set up in his mind as to who she should be. But after more dates, he realizes that she is not shy: actually quite the opposite, she’s outgoing, but his initial responses and assumptions made it awkward—he was only looking for what he had previously thought. But as he continues to date the woman, he realizes that he wasn’t even close. He learns that the only piece of accurate information he had was that she was “nice.” Turns out she plays the guitar well, but doesn’t sing. If the man had decided that he had known everything before he had continued to discover who she was, he would have remained with an incomplete picture, no matter how sincere.

I don’t believe that mankind knows everything, or ever has known everything, about God. We are in a constant state of learning. I like your example about evolution. Evolution has not been in the vernacular of science for the majority of the human race’s existence. A relatively newer concept, as evolution gains momentum as a powerful scientific theory, there are many who would be willing to say, “Ah! Now that we know more about the world, we know more about God!” However there are others who might be leery that evolution might be a step in the wrong direction, just as applying Greek metaphysics to theology can be difficult. They may exhibit the same resistance found by those who rejected Galileo.

There are many who associate their belief in God with other thoughts that aren’t God. They may have experienced something with God or of God, believing or knowing of His existence, but somehow they’ve tied some inaccurate thoughts. They hold tenaciously to some ideas (“sings well”, “is shy”), even though they do not accurately reflect the actual situation. Naturally, some people are resistant to new information. But new information does not mean that everything else is invalid. When the man discovers that she does not sing, that does not mean she is not nice, or that she was only a hologram. Indeed, science and the divine reality cannot be mutually conflicting; however, an inaccurate view of God or an inaccurate assumptions from science are by nature perfectly conflicting with reality. Since we have neither a perfect view of God and His actions nor a perfect view of science and all discovery, we are, by nature, given a little “elbow room.” We did not create the elbow room: it is due to our lack of knowledge.

Besides, if we receive no knowledge until after the trial of our faith—faith being something that God hopes we cultivate for whatever reason—God will remain in a place unreachable by science. It must be so if faith is what is desired. Things placed in the realm of the divine will be beyond the scope of science, by the design of God.

I recognize that, if we make the assumption that God does not exist, changing viewpoints of Him seem like theological bandwagoning. However, if the assumption is that God does exist, then these reactions to new data are perfectly reasonable: some will be leery of a change and others will embrace it. There have been times where religion has based itself in incorrect principles of science (geocentrism, for example), and it was difficult for many to move into correct scientific views who had intertwined their views with God. Others will not be leery, but will be excited to understand more of things as they really are, and will consider the new facts as opportunities to learn more of God.

You present some options for belief in God: perhaps God does not love us, perhaps He does not exist. There are as many conclusions one can reach about God’s existence, with arguments to accompany each possible stance. I only suggest that, beyond arguments, knowledge can come from the Divine to let us know of a surety of His existence and His love. I also suggest that, if God is interested in us cultivating faith, this knowledge will not come until after we’ve chosen to believe beyond the point where it’s merely logically possible to do so—insofar as there is a logical solution, one need not rely on faith. So as important as arguments and evidences are, God will purposefully stay beyond the reach of our intellects and scientific discoveries, having power to manifest Himself or give knowledge, but reserving the right to do so when He sees appropriate. My intent is produce the arguments that show how I believe faith in God to be logical, but it cannot be to prove His existence.

This leads to your last question: Why should we have reason to believe one explanation more than another? Even though I intend to show how one can be logical, educated and still believe in God (however unpopular it may be among colleagues), it is not the logical argument that has strength, in my opinion, when it comes to choosing to believe in a loving God over the other options; it is the experience that comes after the often long or hard road of believing.
There are other questions that one can ask about the differences in the beliefs of God. I hope to explain some of my thoughts on that with upcoming posts.

Amber said...

Hi Mikha'el! I have a surprise for you over on my blog. Check it out.

DeweyOlsen said...

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Doug & Laurel said...

Hi Mikha'el
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- Doug & Laurel

bryan said...

hello. i liked that comments that you made above. I think that a large reason the faith of many is so shaky is that they aren basing it on the wrong thing. It is important to realize where knowledge, faith, logic, and other tools of learning fit into religious belief and belief in God.....what leads to true understanding of God and what is just something we use to try to prove him to ourselves without exercising the proper. I have to admit that I've suffered from this dilemma from time to time. It takes to work to resist faulty assumptions and easy answers that aren't based on spiritual reality.