Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Problem of Evil and Soul-Making

I wrote the following essay for my Philosophy of Religion class at the University of Utah. The more I learn, the more I realize my ignorance. I believe my professor provided feedback on my argument and not on any of my theological claims. Any comments on these claims relating to Christianity and/or the Bible would be appreciated.

The problem of evil relates to a prima facie contradiction between the existence of evil or suffering and the existence of God. The answer to the problem of evil usually entails differentiating definitions of the terms evil, benevolence, and omnipotence along with a conclusion of the existence or non-existence of God. Theodicists defend the existence of God and sometimes use the problem of evil to justify their theistic claims. Philosopher John Hick is such a theodicist and contributed greatly to the debate with his book Evil and the God of Love.[1] Hick attempts to justify the existence of evil by claiming that it allows for moral development or soul-making and is therefore in line with the existence of God.[2] Soul-making then is a greater good than the absence of evil and justifies evil as part of God’s design of the world. The basic deductive argument as it relates to the problem of evil is as following:

1. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
2. God has the power to eliminate all evil.
3. God knows when and where evil exists.
4. God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
5. Evil exists.
6. Therefore, God does not exist.

Christian theology rests on premise (1) and therefore refutation of the atheistic conclusion (6) relies on resolving a contradiction between premises (2) through (5) based on traditional definitions of omnipotence, omniscience, benevolence, and evil. Philosophers and theodicists have disagreed with these traditional definitions and reformulated the premises to support the existence of God. For example, Nelson Pike redefines the benevolence of God to allow evil only if there is a morally sufficient reason for evil or suffering.[3] Pike further proposes that evil may exist in the best of all possible worlds thereby eliminating contradiction. Roderick Chisholm added to the idea of evil’s existence in the best of all possible worlds by claiming that evil can (and must) be defeated in order to contradict (6).[4] Terence Penelhum questioned the presupposition inherent in (5) and showed that Christians must be committed to justifying all evils because of the possibility of spiritual benefit that we may not have the epistemic capacity to understand.[5]

John Hick begins his theodicy by acknowledging evolution as an “unavoidable Christian tenet” while maintaining our “spiritualization as a child of God.”[6] He rejects the presupposition that it is God’s plan is to create a hedonistic paradise common to atheistic arguments and instead uses the analogy of the parent and child to show that God is primarily interested in developing the soul.[7] He proposes that it is more fruitful, in this context, to look to the future rather than the past as it relates to the teleology of the existence of evil. He then distinguishes between physical pain and suffering to show that much of human misery transcends physical pain while anxiety, fear, and remorse are sufferings of the soul.[8] It is here that he proposes that an epistemic distance is necessary for free-will to exist in relation to God. Sinfulness and the value of redemption create a paradox that Hick claims places suffering within divine providence.[9] The key point to his argument is that without evil, there could be no morally correct action because the consequences of any action could never be evil or inflict suffering. Without moral consequence, development of the soul and redemption would never be realized. Being made in His image does not mean comfort and idleness but rather tasks, challenges, and problems. He addresses the problem with the mystery of random, unexplained suffering by suggesting that mystery may be an important part of soul-making as demonstrated by compassion and altruism. He further suggests that the mystery of dysteleological suffering may be beyond human understanding but still may be support for theism by again emphasizing that evil paradoxically allows human goodness within a context of world divinely created for soul-making.[10]

Hick’s soul-making theodicy, at first glance, does seem to overcome the contradictions inherent in the classic problem of evil. However, it has many problems in its formulation and conclusion of God’s existence. First, soul-making theodicy does not adequately account for evolution and our coming into spiritual existence. Hick recognizes that evolution is a fact of nature and his idea of a two-stage process of spiritualization necessarily means that at some point in our development, the hand of God touched us. Being made in his image seems to mean that we had to evolve certain capacities that would allow belief and reason to be possible. In other words, we had to physically evolve a cerebral cortex and higher brain functioning. Was it God’s plan that we evolve in a certain way that allowed only humans to have the capacity of being made in is image? This fits nicely with many tenets in the Book of Genesis but is problematic in terms of evolution even as simple as the Great Chain of Being.[11] If God’s design of our world is to provide us with a physical reality capable of developing our soul, it does not make sense that there would be a need of a two-stage process. God being omnipotent and omniscient of the fact that He was going to make us in His image at some point could just have easily made us according to the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis without the need of an evolutionary process. The uniqueness or specialness of humans in God’s scheme and dominion over all other animals in Christian faith conflicts with evolution in the fact that evolution makes it possible that other creatures might develop cognitive capacities similar to our own and therefore be possible of being made in His image as well.

Secondly, with regards to animals, soul-making theodicy does not adequately account for their suffering. If suffering and evil are necessary for humans who uniquely have a soul that requires developing and God is both omnipotent and omniscient then it is possible that a world could exist where pain, suffering, consequence, and redemption only applied to humans. Hick would respond that pointless evil does not exist because the very mystery of the appearance of pointless suffering allows the possibility of compassion or some other form of human goodness. This does not hold up to the fact we can conceptualize unknown suffering that negates a realistic response of human goodness. How can compassion and altruistic behavior be shown to the animal that gets caught in the La Brea tar pits that no one witnessed slowly, horrifically dying? Redemption and the possibility of human goodness points to the actions we may or may not perform. Any suffering outside the possibility of action or outside the possibility of witness seems to serve no purpose to the process of soul-making and is therefore pointless if humans are the only one of God’s creations that has a soul.

The same reasoning applies to the suffering and evil of mass or innocent human suffering that goes without witness as well. We can imagine an individual without family or friends who dies in a way that not even a corpse or skeleton remain. We can also imagine that this individual died in such a way that their suffering did not contribute to the development of their own soul such as slowly suffocating while in a coma, i.e., no higher brain functioning to realize suffering of say dying alone but enough base functioning to feel physical pain. There does not seem to be either the capacity for human goodness to be demonstrated in the face of the suffering or the ability to reflect on the mystery of the point of suffering that we discover after the fact. If neither is possible then I argue that it is pointless evil and does not fit within Hick’s formulation of a soul-making theodicy without the contradiction of omnipotence, omniscience, or benevolence inherent in the classic problem of evil. In other words, the argument for suffering as teleological in any capacity still falls short regarding evil without benefit to anyone either before or after the suffering even in an environment expressly designed for soul-making.

Lastly, Hick creates a paradox that many theists, particularly those of Christian faith, would find unacceptable. First, assume that God exists and allows suffering for the possibility of morality in our world for the purpose of soul making. Next, assume that Heaven and Hell exist as reward or punishment for the choices we make in this world. Then imagine an individual who because of free-will, faith, and the environment God provides for the development of the soul, chooses a path of moral correctness and earns a place in Heaven. According to Christian doctrine, Heaven is a paradise where conditions are perfect. Then by Hick’s formulation Heaven must either be absent of free-will or morality. Free-will would allow wrong or mistaken action but wrong action is not possible in the paradise of Heaven because conditions are perfect. Further, there seems to be evidence in the Bible that free-will is punishable and evil as demonstrated by some accounts of Lucifer and the Fall. Lastly, to say that Heaven is absent of morality would be heretical to Christian doctrine since God is morally perfect and Heavenly paradise is again, a place where conditions are perfect. If the design of the physical world allows development of the soul, what does the design of Heaven allow regarding free-will, development, and morality?

[1] Hick, John. Evil and the God of Love. New York, NY: Harper and Row Publishers, 1966 (rev. edn., 1977).

[2] Hick, John. “Soul-Making and Suffering.” In The Problem of Evil, edited by Marilyn M. Adams and Robert M. Adams, 168-188. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Selections include only Chapters 12 and 14 from Evil and the God of Love (rev. edn., 1977).

[3] Pike, Nelson. “Hume on Evil” In The Problem of Evil, p. 41.

[4] Chisholm, Roderick M. “The Defeat of Good and Evil” In The Problem of Evil, p. 68.

[5] Penelhum, Terence. “Divine Goodness and the Problem of Evil” In The Problem of Evil, p. 81-82.

[6] Hick, John. “Soul-Making and Suffering.” In The Problem of Evil, p. 168.

[7] Hick, John. “Soul-Making and Suffering.” In The Problem of Evil, pp. 169-171.

[8] Ibid, p. 176.

[9] Ibid, p. 178.

[10] Ibid, p. 188.

[11] The conceptualization of a Great Chain of Being is a Western idea of the medieval period. It is illustrated as a hierarchy with life as a continuum from material to immaterial and inanimate to animate. This basically covered everything from rock to God. Our human existence places us on the on the border of material and immaterial and therefore closest to God.


Jason Epps said...

Most philosophers, theist and atheist, agree that the deductive problem of evil has been solved. For this, we have Alvin Plantinga to thank. If anyone is interested in reading the solution, pick up a copy of "God, Freedom and Evil" by Alvin Plantinga. If your professor did not recommend this reading when you were discussing this subject last semester, I would be quite disappointed.

Ronin said...

Thanks again for your thoughtful comments. Dr Crowe recommended the Plantinga reading but we covered similar,more modern arguments as mentioned below.

Based on my readings in “The Problem of Evil” edited by McCord Adams (1990), I respectively do not understanding how the deductive argument is resolved or what an inductive answer to the problem of evil even looks like. I read an essay of Plantinga’s entitled “God, Evil, and the Metaphysics of Freedom” (1977) from that collection and he seems to be using a free will defense and best of all possible worlds argument. I know he also formulates an other minds argument for the existence of God and the idea of transworld depravity but from what I have briefly researched, there are still problems with his argument related to the problem of evil. This includes the pointless evil of seemingly meaningless suffering and the savageness we witness in the animal kingdom.

I have ordered Plantinga’s book to read cover to cover versus the 28-page essay in the edited collection but I was hoping you could shed some light or provide a link that will shed some light on these difficulties. A simple outline of his argument would be sufficient to help me with my lack of understanding of your claim.

Thanks and Best Wishes,