Sunday, April 27, 2008

Philosophy of Religion 12: Evil and the ad hoc

Chapter 6 of the Murray/Rea book concentrates on the familiar argument that the existence of a "Perfect Being" God can't be squared with the amount of apparently utterly superfluous evil to be found in this sublunary world.

Half way through the chapter, Murray and Rea make a distinction between what they call a defence (''a possible reason, without concern for its believability, why God might permit evil" -- "a defence aims just at demonstrating the possibility of God's coexisting with evil"), and a theodicy ("a believable and reasonably comprehensive theory about why God might have permitted evil of the amount and variety we find in our world.").

That's an excellent distinction to make. But they miss the opportunity to add that a "defence", so called, is of course typically no defence at all; it's just an ad hoc patch with no virtue other that saving the appearances. A classic version of this sort of "defence" is found, of course, in Plantinga's daft ruminations about transworld depravity and so forth. This game-playing is of no more value to the struggling Perfect Being theist than any other bout of ad hockery used to save theories from potentially fatal anomalies. And students should be told so. The philosophy of science in particular has, post Lakatos, a rich literature on what makes for an ad hoc move, and why such moves are intellectually disreputable and to be roundly criticized. It would have been good to see Murray and Rea engage with this literature and similarly lambast ad hoc "defences" in the debate on the problem of evil. But they don't.

Anyway, we needn't take mere "defences" seriously -- once the Perfect Being theist is reduced to relying on those, he's as lost as anyone else in a badly degenerating research programme who has to rely on ad hockery to fend off final refutation.

So what about the theodicies that Murray and Rea consider?

  1. The punishment theodicy Evil is a result of divine punishment for human wrong-doing. Murray and Rea don't like this, but they are almost offensively gentle about this horrible idea. Visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children just makes out God to be vilely vindictive.
  2. Natural consequence theodicy Some evils are just the natural consequences of wrong doing. But as Murray and Rea note, that doesn't even get into the right ball-park for explaining the vast amount of suffering produced in the world without the intervention of moral agents.
  3. Free will theodicy It is a good that there are free agents, and some free agents will (regretably) go wrong. But as Murray and Rea note again this doesn't get into the right ball-park for explaining natural evil. And of course, it doesn't get God off the hook even with respect to the actions produced by free agents. A powerful enough ominiscient being could snuff out a few conspicuously evil agents, a Hitler here, a Stalin there, and nudge down the amount of evil.
  4. Natural law theodicy. Evil arises out of preconditions that must be in place for creatures to exercise their freedom. But this smacks of ad hockery again. We haven't the foggiest reason to suppose that a world with free agents has to be a world with particularly nasty terminal cancers. Why shouldn't God have created a world with a patchwork of laws of relatively local extent (actually some like Nancy Cartwright think that is what he created!) which allows rather less suffering? And if that means intervening a bit more to keep the show on the road, well an omnipotent being who cared could do and would do that. As, in effect, Murray and Rea note.
  5. Soul-making theodicies We need some evil around to build a bit of moral character. But again, that's a quite ghastly idea, that a baby's terrible suffering should be there to help me make my soul better. And of course, there isn't the foggiest reason to suppose that all the evil there is in the world is needed for those supposed good purposes. Again, Murray and Rea are rather offensively silent on this singularly nasty idea.

So where have we got to? We've five theodicies mentioned, and even by Murray and Rea's own count, four of them are hopeless, and the fifth is equally bad.

Very oddly, however, they sum up the situation at the end of the chapter like this: "Are the arguments against the existence of God ... powerful? Some think so. However, as we have seen, these arguments rely on assumptions that are open to some serious challenges. How serious those challenges are is a matter for each of us to decide." Which is inept, twice over. Firstly, it misrepresents how their arguments have actually gone. But worse, beginning students -- as Murray and Rea must know -- don't need invitations to "decide" for themselves. They need precisely the opposite, injunctions to follow arguments carefully, and apportion their credences to the weight of arguments. Especially in this sort of area, students are only too willing to avail themselves of any get-outs.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Trying to understand religion from viewpoint of someone who only believes in current world is useless. All these arguments just show that one does not understand why there is what is called evil, but that is not an argument against existence of God.

Mike Almeida said...

A classic version of this sort of "defence" is found, of course, in Plantinga's daft ruminations about transworld depravity and so forth. This game-playing is of no more value to the struggling Perfect Being theist than any other bout of ad hockery used to save theories from potentially fatal anomalies.

I'm not sure you're following the argument. To put the whole matter fairly bluntly, the burden was on Plantinga to show that it is broadly logically possible for God to exist along with evil events, or states of affairs or actions, etc. He showed, about as well as it could be shown, that this is indeed broadly logically possible. I can't see where it's aptly called 'daft' unless it's mistakenly thought that he was arguing that our world is one in which everyone is twd or you're making implicit assumptions about modal epistemology or whatnot. But even then, his views on modal epistemology are no more daft than, say, van Inwagen's more cautious views. He was responding to Mackie's logical problem of evil, which, it should be recalled, also involved some ruminations on what is and isn't broadly possible.

Gavin said...

Hmmm...none of the theodicies you discuss consider the (now admittedly somewhat unpopular) ideas of the devil or evil spirits. Could beings such as these be thought to account for evil(s)? At least one recent book (G.Graham, Evil and Christian ethics, CUP, 2001) has tried to promote the suggestion they could.

The trouble for the secular philosopher trying to corner the theist is that the theist's imagination is liable to generate new ideas (or to find them within his religious traditions) which defy or subvert attempts to pin him down with (any version of) matter-of-fact rationalism.

I don't know how you'd go about assessing how viable his 'moves' are when he does this. Certainly, it's a problem theists face within their own communities, where believers are apt to move in differen theological and philosophical directions. But, then, the 'logic' of religious thought and its regulation and assessment in such contexts would doubtless not impress you or offer you a possible model to draw inspiration from (or perhaps I'm wrong about this?).

Peter Smith said...

Re Mike Almeida's comments: Well, "daft" was being cheerfully abusive -- but the point is a serious one. If the defence of the compatability of evil with the existence of a good God requires something like the twd hypothesis, then whatever the relevance of this to in-house debates by philosophy about exactly what is logically compatible with what, it is no use at at all to the religious believer who doesn't want ad hoc accretions but a believable theodicy. (For reasons why Plantinga's arguments are in bad shape anyway, see Botterill, Phil Quarterly, 1977.)

"said..." said...

But Peter, Plantinga's arguments are the most philosophical of the whole bunch! What could be more like David Lewis on science? Or Russell (or Dummett) on mathematics? And so forth (really, the philosophy of science is full of such stuff, e.g. you mention Cartwright and just think how that suggestion would sound to a scientist!)... But you're spot on about the mentioned theodicies, which are the ones most talked about in philosophy of religion. But you know, maybe that is the fault of the "philosophy" part of that? Ordinary theists like to blame Satan, or to imagine that a big enough reward will make it all alright. Or think that suffering is not in itself bad (especially given the massive reward for reacting well to it). Or take an attitude to theodicy that anyone might take to superstring theory (i.e. maybe, it's all beyond me, wait and see) or the evolution of subjectivity. Etc...

Mike Almeida said...

it is no use at at all to the religious believer who doesn't want ad hoc accretions but a believable theodicy. (For reasons why Plantinga's arguments are in bad shape anyway, see Botterill, Phil Quarterly, 1977.)

I will look at the Botterill paper, but I doubt there will be anything that I've not seen elsewhere on the issue. Indeed, I'm prepared to wager, sight unseen, that the objection is based on a misunderstanding. I say that since (i) it is an early paper (ii) Mackie badly misunderstood the argument himself (as he admits in later responses) and (iii) there continue to be objections to this argument whose authors simply have not paid their dues with it. Still, as I say, I'll take a look. On the first point, I think that's probably right. Most of these arguments are too focused on specific philosophical issues to be worth much practically.

legodesi said...

"A powerful enough ominiscient being could snuff out a few conspicuously evil agents, a Hitler here, a Stalin there, and nudge down the amount of evil."

Why would he? Wouldn't another Hitler, another Stalin, simply step into their place?