Theodicy and Irrationality

| | Comments (8)

Stuart Buck says it's irrational to bring out the problem of evil after the tsunami as if this somehow changes anything. I think he's absolutely right.

If people were already prepared to maintain religious faith in the face of a 100% death rate (and all the lesser evils that already exist in the world), it is irrational to act as if the problem of evil has suddenly arisen simply because a minute percentage of the world's population faced death in one incident.

Not to minimize how bad it is for those involved, this is really only .000025% of the world's current population who have died all at once. Compare that to the history of the world, and it's not a huge change. People die in much worse ways than this. They just don't often do it in such large numbers at once. This isn't really any more of a problem for theodicists than any other natural deaths that are more spread out.

8 Comments

    ...it's irrational to bring out the problem of evil after the tsunami as if this somehow changes anything.... This isn't really any more of a problem for theodicists than any other natural deaths that are more spread out.

On the one hand, it's true that no one disaster makes a qualitative difference, and at best a minimal quantitative difference, and in that sense it doesn't add anything new to the debate.

On the other hand, current affairs naturally direct, to a significant extent, what we attend to, the problems we find most pressing, and the issues we find most salient. The scale of the disaster directs people's attention to a problem deserving of their attention.

That much is uncontroversial. What about the charge of irrationality? Well, I think it can be maintained only for a very specific sort of case. Let's start by describing a couple in which your charge would be inapt.

A young adult who, say, had never before reflected on the existence of a certain sort of god in the context of taking seriously tremendous and (apparently) unredeemed suffering, would certainly not be irrational for thinking that something significant had indeed changed, at least insofar as she was concerned.

The same could be said for, say, a young cleric who, despite having knowledge by description of all the evil in the world, now acquired knowledge by acquaintance of tremendous and apparently unredeemed suffering in the course of volunteering for relief work in Aceh.

Of course, it would be incorrect for someone like William Rowe or Bruce Russell to all of a sudden claim that the tsunami somehow made a difference in principle to the problem faced by theodicists. But let's not act as if the standards of correctness for academic philosophers or theologians are also operative when it comes to evaluating ordinary folks' reaction to such events.

The disaster makes the problem of evil emotionally salient. In that sense, it is pedagogically effective and eminently rational to call it to people's attention while it's vivid and easy to focus on. Think of it as an efficient use of cognitive resources.

I am puzzled by presentations of the problem of evil which focus on disasters, genocide, or other temporal, and hence transient, evils.

On the traditional view of hell, God operates an eternal torture chamber, where pain is not limited by physiology, and from which not even death offers surcease. If a Christian can accept this doctrine without questioning the goodness of God, how can the (relatively) trivial sufferings of the living pose a problem?

"Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel."

John, as I said in the post I have no problem with directing one's attention to a subject that this reminds us of. I myself discussed it a little bit.

A young adult who, say, had never before reflected on the existence of a certain sort of god in the context of taking seriously tremendous and (apparently) unredeemed suffering, would certainly not be irrational for thinking that something significant had indeed changed, at least insofar as she was concerned.

Something would have changed in that person, perhaps, but not with the world. Maybe the depths of what one person could do to another would make clear how evil we can be. In that way, discovering the horros of the Holocaust, American slavery, Stalin's gulag, Saddam Hussein's mass graves, etc. would lead someone to consider for the first time the nature of evil. In a similar way, those who are first brought to think about death might then start considering the problem of evil for the first time with this. Also, this is something that should only happen for each person once.

That's not how all the pundits were spinning it, though. They were talking as if people really had more reason to blame God now than they did before, simply because we've seen something worse than most of us have seen in our lifetime. That really does seem to me to be a bad argument.

The same could be said for, say, a young cleric who, despite having knowledge by description of all the evil in the world, now acquired knowledge by acquaintance of tremendous and apparently unredeemed suffering in the course of volunteering for relief work in Aceh.

Maybe some of my resistance to seeing this is just from experience. It just seemed strange to me when people were expecting me to be dealing with the problem of evil when my brother died a little over seven years ago. In my experience, people who have never thought about the problem of evil, and people who arrive at uncomforting answers to it, do tend to struggle through issues related to trusting God and wondering what God's purposes might be in whatever they're going through.

People who already believe that God works in some way through the terrible things that take place and intends them for good do not struggle so much with trusting God or questioning whether a good God can allow terrible things to happen. They might wonder what those purposes are, but that's not the same as questioning whether a good God could allow such things, which is what the problem of evil is all about.

So to go back to your cleric example, I just don't see it. I'd never had anyone close to me die. My grandparents don't count. They're family, but they're not like my brother. I'd never had anything even close to that occur. I'd lost cats and dogs, but that's also not even close. I'm just not sure how the experience of it is supposed to change anything. If you've already worked out what you think, then that now applies. If you haven't, then you're reminded that there are still questions. One way or the other, it just doesn't add to the problem that some particular event has just happened.

As I said above, that doesn't mean it's not a good reason to raise the questions for those who have not dealt with them, but so many people I was seeing and reading were making it sound as if this changes everything in the discussion. It shouldn't. It should just be a reminder to talk about it.

Jeremy,

So do you agree that it would be "irrational" only in a very limited range of cases? Do you agree that, in the cases I described, it would be perfectly rational for those people to begin taking the problem seriously?

    Something would have changed in that person, perhaps, but not with the world.

I don't get it. If something changes in a part of the world, then something in the world changes. Are you working with some technical notion of "change with the world"?

I meant some objective change outside the person as opposed to some change within the person's mind.

Again, those raising the questions because they're worth discussing simply on this occasion is not what I'm talking about.

I agree that it's irrational only in certain cases, but I don't think I'd call it very limited. I'm not sure how what I agreed to allows genuine wrestling through the questions by someone who has already done so fully and concluded that there's no strong argument against God's existence unless the further evidence is of a new kind. It includes people like me (if I were to do this) and many others (if they were to). It's a large enough group that I've seen what seem to be instances of it online and in the mainstream media.

    I meant some objective change outside the person as opposed to some change within the person's mind.

Now it would be interesting to see what theory of rationality you're working with such that mental changes aren't crucially relevant to whether pursuing some course of inquiry or reaching some conclusion would count as rational or not. As far as I'm aware, any theory of rationality worth considering would have it that the subject's beliefs, experiences, desires, intentions, etc. are the primary determinants of rationality.

But we should back up a step. Are you concerned with epistemic irrationality or practical irrationality? Something else entirely, perhaps?

    I'm not sure how what I agreed to allows genuine wrestling through the questions by someone who has already done so fully and concluded that there's no strong argument against God's existence unless the further evidence is of a new kind.

What do you mean by evidence "of a new kind"? Certainly there's no general condition that requires additional evidence to be "of a new kind" in order to be relevant, or even tip the scales in favor of one option. For example, suppose I claim that most Americans believe X. You don't believe me. So I set out to prove it to you. In this imaginay scenario, we have nothing better to do, so we just start calling people randomly. We call hundreds of thousands of people, and every single one of them reports, "yes, I believe X." At a certain point the evidence would become overwhelming. But I wouldn't have given you evidence "of a new kind"--it would just be more of the same.

OK, I think I see what you're getting at now. I wasn't thinking of the subjective changes in the thinker as changing the nature of the problem of evil itself. Some people are talking as if they should. At least their words sound that way to me.

I'm having trouble thinking through how a subjective experience that doesn't add propositional content is going to make certain steps in reasoning more rational. Were you thinking of the way these experiences raise someone's awareness as doing so in a way that adds propositional knowledge? I just have a hard time seeing that. I'm not sure there's any proposition that I grasp more securely now that I've been through the death of a brother that I couldn't have known beforehand.

The example you give involves having a very small sample and adding more to it until it's a pretty overwhelming sample. The one I had in mind involves a very large sample (all the evil known to humanity so far) and adds a very small amount in comparison. That's why I don't think more of the same in this case makes a difference. There are cases where more of the same would make a difference. In this case, I think you'd need a very different kind of evidence, e.g. a much greater degree of evil than we've seen, which many people see the Holocaust as being (though I dispute that; I think it's another case of a much greater concentration of kinds of evil that we'd already seen). I don't have examples of what a new kind of evil would be, since we haven't seen any new ones in a long time.

    I'm having trouble thinking through how a subjective experience that doesn't add propositional content is going to make certain steps in reasoning more rational. Were you thinking of the way these experiences raise someone's awareness as doing so in a way that adds propositional knowledge?

More than propositional knowledge and propositional attitudes is relevant to determining whether someone's intellectual conduct is reasonable or rational. Quick example: Jones is currently experiencing a headache, which makes it reasonable for him to believe he has a headache; but the headache is a purely sensory state, with no propositional content whatsoever. Likewise, it is plausible that emotional responses can render certain things salient that previously were not--they heighten one's sensitivity to various features of one's environment, or implications of one's beliefs, etc--and thereby make certain beliefs or actions reasonable that were not previously.

    The one I had in mind involves a very large sample (all the evil known to humanity so far) and adds a very small amount in comparison.

There is no such sample. No one has evidence of all the evil suffered thus far. Individual people vary widely in their exposure to the extent of evil in the world. And mind you that some evils are incommunicable, so that only the people who have suffered them can appreciate their depth. For example, parents who have lost a child almost invariably say that the grief experienced is incommunicable.

    I think you'd need a very different kind of evidence, e.g. a much greater degree of evil than we've seen, which many people see the Holocaust as being (though I dispute that; I think it's another case of a much greater concentration of kinds of evil that we'd already seen).

I think you're being insensitive to the complexities of value. The way in which goods and evils are distributed can itself be a good or an evil. Thus, greater concentrations of evil, or more sinister patterns in the distribution of suffering and death can themselves constitute a qualitatively different kind of evil. Call them "distributive evils," or "higher-order evils," if you like. For example: Nine children dying from some disease is bad. Add that all nine children were of the same parents, and it's even worse. Add that those nine children were all their children, and it's even worse.

Contact

    The Parablemen are: , , and .

Archives

Archives

Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff

    jolly_good_blogger

    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible


    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)





  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04