Print Story Oil changes, Dranges, Fortress America, Losing My Religion
By lm (Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 09:28:53 AM EST) (all tags)
Verily Wiki sayeth:
The phrase "losing my religion" is an expression from the southern region of the United States that means losing one's temper or civility, or "being at the end of one's rope."

That song never made sense to me before.

Oh no I've said too much.

Yesterday I picked up a copy of Theodore Drange's Nonbelief & Evil: Two Arguments for the Nonexistence of God which I had requested be put on hold for me. Ten years or so ago, Drange's argument from nonbelief was discussed on a mailing list I was on. The core Drange's argument from evil is that if the God of (Evangelical) Christianity were to exist, He would both desire and be capable of bringing about what Drange calls Situation L:
Situation L = the situation of the amount of suffering and premature death experienced by humans in the world at the present time being significantly less than what it actually is at present. (In other words, if the actual amount, at present, is, say, a total of n units of suffering and premature death, then in situation L that amount would be, at present, significantly less than n units.)

I'd read, or at least skimmed through Drange's book before. On the one hand, I think Drange is more intellectually honest than most folks who write about the existence of God. Drange exibits a quality which is all to rare in the philosophy of religion, he admits that his argument is very narrowly qualified and only works in certain contexts. For example, he ntoes that on a scale of 0 to 100 percent efficacy, his argument from evil is only at about 20% against what he calls ``liberal Christianity'' and at 0% against the most basic abstract conception of God. (It's real strength is against Evangelicals where he claims it carries the day at a full 95%.) But on the other hand, he's got quite a few quirks that irritate the bejesus out of me such as dividing Christianity into two groups: Evangelical and Liberal. By the former he appears to mean the Fundamentalist crowd and by the latter he means anyone that doesn't take every last scrap of scripture as being literally true.

But, most importantly, I did not find in Drange what I was looking for, an argument that Situation L is indeed desired by the God of Christianity contrary to Pope and Leibnitz that God, by necessity, has created the best of all possible worlds and, consequently, cannot desire to make a better world.

Which led me to dork around on EBSCO a bit which led me to a couple reviews of a book that I dimly recall having been meaning to read since it first came out, Susan Neiman's Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. (I think ni has also recommended this book to me.) Per the review, Neiman picks up the discourse exactly where my interest begins with Leibniz and the events of the Lisbon Earthquake and cycling through Voltaire, Hume and Kant up through to the present era. Turns out that if the Reviewers presentation of Neiman's presentation of Kant is correct, it looks as if my next step is going to be Kant and the observation that the whole discussion ``wrongly presupposes a systematic connection between happiness and virtue.'' This book may be next on my shopping list.

All of which kept me up far too late last night and me without even any whiskey to keep me company while reading such dry prose. Kant himself in the Prolegomena said that critically reading his own Critique to be ``a disagreeable task, because the work is dry, obscure, opposed to all ordinary notions, and moreover long-winded.'' But A few hours of slumber and taking my car in to get an oil change gave me a bit of respite. As my dapper little Yaris is hitting the 15k point, I took it out to the dealer for the full spectrum of scheduled maintenance rather than to the local garage for a quick oil, lube and filter job. And let me just say, taking the car to the dealer is a whole other experience.

This was, after all, the first time I've been to the dealer since I drove my car off the lot with single digits on the odometer. Before today, I've never been to the service center. The experience begins with a large, four lane drive-through with automatic doors. Lest customers have to brave the elements, they pull up, wait for the door on one of the four lanes to open, and pull into the shelter of the bay while the door closes behind. Then one exits the vehicle, is seated at a round table with a chipper attendant buoyantly inquires into which services they can serve up on this fine day. Once the services are scheduled and the key is handed over, the car owner is escorted stage left into a waiting room with plush chairs, tables, large screen televisions, free coffee and a crowd of other car owners cheerfully waiting. Once the services were complete, the car is returned freshly washed and humming to a fine tuning.

So while I was there I read a very nice article in The Atlantic contrasting the views of Israeli novelist David Grossman with those of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Something struck me while reading the article, the existential angst felt by Israeli Jews for very good reasons is very similar to what is felt by large swathes of the US public. I was particularly struck by a quote by Grossman along the lines of ``We've got a large army, we've got nukes. Yet, we must fear for our very existence.'' This view, which makes quite a bit of sense in Israel doesn't make so much sense in the US. And yet, this view, to a certain extent, defines the American experience. Despite being Fortress America, a nation across the sea from any real enemies and whose only enemies willing to take up arms against don't have the capacity for a significant military strike from overseas, is engaged in a `war on terror' against `those who hate us because we are free' and who pose such a threat that `the right to be kept safe by the government' becomes the primary right discussed in political speeches.

The more I think about this, the more I wonder if a large part of the outlook in foreign affairs can't be explained by the remains of Hobbes in the US outlook that `a war of all against all' does obtain between the nations while most of Europe tends to adopt a more cosmopolitan view of continental thinkers such as Kant. Regardless, it's a bit absurd.

What if all these fantasies
Come flailing around
Now I've said too much
I thought that I heard you laughing
I thought that I heard you sing
I think I thought I saw you try

But that was just a dream
That was just a dream

< Who are you people? | More mundane telepathy... >
Oil changes, Dranges, Fortress America, Losing My Religion | 12 comments (12 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback
maybe I'm missing it by sasquatchan (2.00 / 0) #1 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 09:43:10 AM EST
Is the short answer of: free will, sin, and man's break from God (the three go hand-in-hand), not sufficient to answer/reconcile (to a believer) the problem of a holy God and evil in the world ?

Words of faith are nonsense to a non-believer, so that audience would never be happy with any answer given to the question.

yes and no by gzt (2.00 / 0) #2 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 10:12:25 AM EST
On some level one really can be satisfied to just wave one's hands and say, "I freely choose evil and this freely chosen evil of mine contributes to the suffering of the world and forcibly removing the possibility of doing that would do violence to who I am." Or rephrasing the "problem" of evil as, rather, the knowledge that being, as such, is Good and that we are somehow estranged from this ontological goodness, and this difference between essence and existence isn't a reason to doubt that being, as such, is good, but rather to seek a return to the fount of Being [that broad arc is pretty ecumenical, but the Christian version is that God made the earth and called it "very good", but man rebelled against God and the goodness of His creation (seeking rather death and nonexistence), and so God became man in order that man might be united to Him again]. And that's fairly satisfying on most levels, certainly enough so that the skeptics' question isn't the one keeping me awake at night, but rather the existential questions. But you really do have to be able to say something to them, you know? There's a conversation, and to shut it up there is essentially the same as replying to any prodding with, "Thus saith the Lord." I suppose, in the end, any conversation will eventually have to find its way to that point, but, well, it's best not to lead with it.

[ Parent ]
my only nit by sasquatchan (2.00 / 0) #4 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 10:29:26 AM EST
would be with "freely choosing evil." It may be trite, but the difference between a saint and a sinner is the saint knows s/he is a sinner, and the sinner thinks s/he is a saint. Paul understood that well, "wretched man that I am," and the vicious tongue twister of " what I don't want to do..."

But in re-reading you reply, I'm not sure this still addresses the existential question. But, back to the sidebar comment: if someone doesn't follow/believe in God through Christian norms, how can there be a conversation about it ? The two parties would be coming from different, non-connecting ends, no ? Or, if from a side that has faith, faith is not blind, for blind faith is not faith. And I'll diss Twain, faith is not "believing what you know to be false."

Maybe I'm not curious enough in those areas. I'll call intellectual laziness in some matters of theology (eg eschatology doesn't worry me much at all, yet plenty get worked up over it, but even then there's answers in it to these questions)

[ Parent ]
continued by gzt (2.00 / 0) #5 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 11:16:13 AM EST
There is some evil that is, for some definition of "freely", freely-chosen, in the sense that, by God, I know this is wrong, I know that I can avoid doing this wrong, but I'm just going to do it anyway and damn the torpedoes. We can argue about "bondage of the will" and "slavery to sin" and what-have-you, but there are surely enough instances of flat-out disobedience that one can call some as freely-chosen as what colour socks I wore today. St Paul's a far-better man than most of us who struggle with the slightly easier problem of wanting to do the wrong thing and then succeeding at doing it.

Well, I would also add that having a conversation or argument about the existence of God as such is a slightly silly thing, as though God were an object in a universe of objects whose existence can be determined like the existence of some hammer. It's just the wrong question to be asking. But I would just say that the strongest faith is in constant internal dialogue with skepticism of sorts (viz Mother Teresa for a popular example) and so would have something to say from that shared experience. For the Christian, Christ is the end of all existential ambitions, and the questions of the skeptic, properly phrased, are underlied by existential ambitions which find their end in Him. Not everybody will "deal" with these sorts of things so not everybody has to be concerned with them. St Paul was all things to all people, but you are you and I am me.

As a side note: most of what passes for eschatology is chicanery and idiocy. Pretty much everybody agreed on all the salient stuff (which is very light on detail, delving into detail generally being discouraged because of the spottiness of the material) between the years, oh, 500 and 1800. The variety of teachings is simply a case modern American Protestant bozos (as opposed to other modern American Protestants) being weird.

[ Parent ]
that depends on how each of those are framed by lm (2.00 / 0) #3 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 10:19:40 AM EST
Drange's argument, assuming I understood it and recall it correctly, is that the Bible has many situations where God was willing to infringe upon the free will of men to a greater and lesser extent for example, in killing off those intent on doing harm to the tribes of Israel. Killing someone, after all, is a direct violation of the will of a person unless they are willing to die. Hence, he argues that God's unwillingness to violate free will in the same manner today suggests that, while capable of reducing the amount of evil in the world today, God is unwilling to have done something such as dropped a meteor on Hitler at an early age so as to avoid the holocaust.

Another approach Drange takes is advocacy of superior genetic engineering. It is possible, he argues, for God to have designed DNA such that cancer would not exist in human beings and, consequently, millions of human being would not have met premature deaths.

Drange seems to be following the notion that `if it is possible in thought, it is possible in actuality.' He doesn't explicitly say that, however, and I've not read closely enough to determine if that is one of his implicit premises. But it certainly seems like it is. If so, I think he tries to get off the train before it reaches the station so to speak. Another problem is that he doesn't really address whether or not his suggestions would actually make the world a better place. It's possible after all, that killing Hitler at a young age would have resulted in something far worse than the holocaust, perhaps involving the wholesale slaughter of billions rather than millions of Jews.

Which is why I'm interested in criticisms of Leibniz-style optimism. Hopefully, there is something better than the satire of Voltaire that doesn't really address the underlying issues so much as it mocks the idea with no real substance. Without a good argument that situation L is possible, I don't think the arguments against God from evil has a very firm conclusion.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
Criticism by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #7 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 01:36:12 PM EST
My criticism of Leibniz is it essentially throws up its hands and claims ignorance. In the end, it asks us to assume an infinitely good God while simultaneously denying us even the possibility of using evidence to test this assumption.

It's not much different from "you can't prove God does not exist." Technically true, but not, I think, very useful. Leibniz gives a way out in that you can use "mysterious ways" to leave open the possibility that an infinitely good God might have His reasons that we do not know...but that only blocks at the level of complete proof. It does not mean we can't ask why the hell so much bad stuff happens to good people and use that as evidence that an infinitely good God does not exist. It just means we can't use it as absolute proof.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

[ Parent ]
An aside by ucblockhead (4.00 / 1) #6 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 01:22:51 PM EST
It strikes me that "nonbeliever" arguments generally run "the narrow, specific conception of God is contradictory here therefore any and all concepts of God are false" while "believer" arguments generally run "The entirely broad conception of something like what is referred to by the word 'God' is implied by $X therefore my particular extremely narrow and specific conception of God is false."

One of my problems with "the problem of evil" is that it makes all sorts of assumptions about God, His goals, etc. that are ignored by both sides.

Also, the problem of evil goes away entirely if you presume that some percentage of humans are "zombies" in the philosophical sense. (Though that view has massive dangers, socially speaking.)
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman

I'm with you on the problem of assumptions. by Christopher Robin was Murdered (4.00 / 1) #8 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 03:15:09 PM EST
Though I'll go one further to say that my problem with the "problem of evil" question is that its all hot air that gets you nowhere.

There's simply no morally satisfying justification a human can create for why God would essentially accept all this suffering - whether out of impotence (in which case he saw it coming but decided to do it anyway), arrogance (he knows what's best and we have to trust that, in the meantime suck it up), or cold Kantian design ("LOL, I made sure the good and the happy weren't the same! You should see your face!").

Even if lm finds a solution - and I wish him luck on that - the result will be make God look like an absolute monster.

Merekat is right. If lm finds an "answer" to this problem, then we will have to conclude that God was not worth worshiping because every answer will be an unsatisfying excuse compared to the reality of suffering.

Ultimately, if God exists and he's good, then it is a matter of faith - something we've known since Ecclesiastes - and all the "debate" has just been so much tire spinning. It is a mystery that's meant to be a mystery and the "problem of evil" is just more vanity.

[ Parent ]
In this case, I think `monster' by lm (2.00 / 0) #9 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 03:39:12 PM EST
is in the eye of the beholder.

Barring something that surprises me, I think my conclusion is going to be some variation of  what Cabell wrote in The Silver Stallion, `The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.'

And if that's the best I conclude one way or the other, that's fine. I'm not really ambitious on the subject. My chief hope is find a rational ground from which I can chide those who claim that all those who have an opposing view are either deluded and uncompassionate  or infidel reprobates.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
One quibble by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #10 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 04:55:39 PM EST
I don't know for sure that "monster" is a reasonable conclusion. We humans tend to elevate ourselves to the center of the universe. In the context of 13.5 billion years of time and untold trillions of galaxies, even the Holocaust pales to insignificance. It only follows if you take the bible as literal "only 6000 years old" truth.
[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
One doesn't have to be Christian to be Humanist by lm (2.00 / 0) #11 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 05:19:38 PM EST
There are plenty of schools of thought that reject God (and the Bible) entirely but still put humanity at the center of the universe in an ethical sense.

There is no more degenerate kind of state than that in which the richest are supposed to be the best.
Cicero, The Republic
[ Parent ]
oh definitely (nt) by ucblockhead (2.00 / 0) #12 Thu Apr 10, 2008 at 07:53:50 PM EST

[ucblockhead is] useless and subhuman
[ Parent ]
Oil changes, Dranges, Fortress America, Losing My Religion | 12 comments (12 topical, 0 hidden) | Trackback