Tinkering around with a new theodicy-argument

(A development of comment to a very good post by Helen De Cruz)

Consider the problem of evil in the inorganic world. What is it? A block of iron rusts, say. This certainly counts as a corruption and so as an evil of some sort or another. But this sense of corruption seems forced, as does to call it evil. Life lives off exactly this sort of process. There just seems to be no problem of evil here. The problem has no clearer sense on the level of vegetative life. There are hints of a problem of evil among insects – Darwin used wasps as a paradigm case of evil in the world. But this sense of evil is obscure too, and probably relies overmuch on anthropomorphism, e.g. we call them “Black Widow” spiders but there is nothing nefarious or unnatural about how they mate.

And so the problem of evil is really a problem that is entirely contextualized within the life of a human or (higher) non-human animal, and in this sense there is a double meaning of what a “pointless” or “gratuitous” evil would be. On the one hand, we can be speaking about the evil in its causes, and these might have been random. To take William Rowe’s example, fawn might burn to death in a forest fire that started by accident (and not “for a reason”) and even if the fire started for a reason, it is not necessary to see the point of the fire as burning the fawn (if the nature has point at all in starting forest fires, it probably has to do with keeping undergrowth down, making fertilizer, etc.). But to take evil in this way is extrinsic to the actual life of the animal, and so it doesn’t touch on the problem of evil in that context where it actually is a problem. In order to do this, we have to consider the evil in the context of the life of the animal. For the animal itself, the evil is an event within its life and is therefore pointless or not within this context. Return to the fawn: either there is some analogue for it to suffer well or there is not; either it can suffer with some analogue to heroism, courage, and fortitude or it cannot. If it can, then this suffering will take its meaning from whatever this is; if it cannot, then within the context of its life the suffering neither has a point nor is pointless, for we deny the relevant sense in which the suffering can have a point within the context of the life in which it occurs.

Put it briefly: most would agree that a pointless or gratuitous evil is one that is not ordered to a greater good, but we should take the additional step of seeing that the first and most important greater good is the good of the human or non-human animal that suffers the evil.

It’s no easy task to figure out what other sense of a greater good there could be for a particular evil considered in its particularity (considered generally, any corruption – whether random, unjust, tragic, or otherwise – gives rise to something else and in this sense contributes to the greater good of nature continuing; and so from this perspective pointless evils are impossible – but from this perspective all deaths are identical. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.) This becomes more difficult when the evil is simply random. But to imagine that the “greater good” consists in some sort of mysterious connection between random evils and other events that could not have come to be otherwise is to posit a sense of the greater good that,  could only exist if an omnipotent providence were already given.

Concept and language

Considered as signified and sign, thought and language can be treated as the same thing, and it almost becomes irrelevant whether one talks about the one or the other.  There are all sorts of cautions that are put on this (maps and territory, logic and metaphysics) but here is another one: language and thought do not serve the same end. Language, since it signifies a placitu or by convention, is a public resource we use, like roads or the electric grid (and this remains true even when we use it for private ends).  The concept is the soul becoming another without doubling it (?!?), but more to the point, it is a personal act, and the action is integrally related to the dignity of the person precisely as a person or individual.

Three Notes

Love and Containment: You’re walking around in some place, say a mall, and looking at no one in particular. They are all in the place. Then you spot your favorite person to talk to (or, in a pinch, an extremely attractive face). They are not in the place, but the place is in the person. In the experience of consciousness the light switches from the mall being what is formal and definitive to the persons to the light focusing on the person and having him become what is formal and definitive of the place. If something you loved enough happened there, it would define the place for you permanently.

The opposite experience of experiencing something horrible in a place and having it define the place is not another instance of the same sort of thing, for space exists to facilitate  the perfection of the higher forms of life; the extent to which this doesn’t happen is either accidental or reducible to moral non-being.

This is a twist on the idea that whatever is, is somewhere (i.e. in a place). Even if we limit the axiom to the cosmos, there is a mode of being in beyond those that were enumerated in pre-20th century physics and metaphysics.

Science as Messiah Figure: The popular narrative of science is that it is a perfection of claims that were imperfectly made by “religion”. The mad lib goes something like this:

For (multi-century time span) the riddle of (any philosophical term or problem) has engaged the  deepest thoughts of the deepest thinkers. But now, exciting new developments by (name of science + ists) at (secular university) are shedding new light into the greatest questions of all time.”

Okay, okay, stop gagging.

More or less corny versions of the same thing are easy to come by: religion tried to solve this problem, but now it’s time we got serious about it and give science a try. Science is the savior of a fallen and inadequate “religion” that could not save us. But the basis of comparison here is not obvious, even if we take it as given that both are trying to explain the same object. Architectural accounts and moral accounts can both be about the same thing, say prisons. There might even be some overlap in the two that gives the illusion that the they are comparable; or perhaps you happen to live in a time where the architects are particularly skilled and the moral theorists are particularly bungled, and this too might make the one account be an infinitely more perfect account than the other.

The universe is too small, therefore man is insignificant. The idea that the vastness of the universe makes a person insignificant is an old one, but it must be the expression of something deeper, since one can also feel insignificant if he is placed in a cramped and tiny room.  What if we found out that the earth, sun and dome of stars was all there was?  Can’t you just hear people saying “well, if that’s it, then…” Either way, one is voicing some sort of dissatisfaction with the universe. We’d probably find something dissatisfying about the universe being exactly the right size (whatever that is). I don’t mean by this that we are crabby, depressive, or Eeyore-ish (I don’t think Pascal was simply mopey when he was terrified by the size of the universe)

Mechanism, control, matter

I’ve argued before that a mechanism is most of all verified by what we can control or make happen for ourselves: e.g. we know appetite is a mechanism because we can make pills for it; chemical decomposition is a mechanism because we can do things like electrolysis; fields are mechanisms because we can make electrical generators, etc. Lo! We have a mechanical account of (some) living activities, atomic actions, and fields.

But if control is the key note or at least dominant note in defining a mechanism, we still need to narrow down the sense of control: a teacher can control the classroom without making teaching a mechanical art; and a trainer can control his horse without making it a mechanism. The control of a mechanism is not by way of incentive, persuasion, or threat, all of which take for granted that the thing you want to control has some ability to direct itself.

But self direction is exactly how the ancients and Medievals defined the living, and so the account of mechanism amounts to the idea that things are either living or machines. Plato makes a claim more or less like this in book X of the laws to prove that all of nature is being moved by the living. Plato takes this as a proof for the divine, but we are more likely to take the same premises to show that complete dominance of nature is at least in principle possible for human beings.

In this sense, the same reality we call a mechanism is what the ancients called matter – that which is, even in its being, receptive and inert. It has no self-direction but has the most perfect dominance possible by an exterior thing (and so to the extent that we consider it “objective” to leave ourselves out of accounts of things, our accounts of controlling matter must see it as having no telos or goal)

Voluntarism and certitude, (I)

There are at least two significant interactions with theological voluntarism in Descartes account of certitude, but it’s unclear whether he’s trying to refute them or incorporate them into his thought. I’ll give a brief account of voluntarism here and talk about how it shows up in the Meditations later.

Voluntarism means more than one thing, I’m here taking it as the thesis that, given that God is omnipotent, anything logically possible in creation becomes really possible. The upshot of this is that anything we can imagine being the case could really be the case. Any coherent  story, or even any story that plays by a plausible set of logical rules (which is usually, though perhaps not necessarily, understood as any account escapes formal logical contradiction) becomes a live possibility for how things actually could be.

One way of avoiding the conclusions of voluntarism so construed was to make the divine will posterior to the divine ideas, and to identify the divine ideas with the essences of the things around us, where “essence” was understood to be a stable, unchanging, eternal principle that thus grounded the possibility of certitude and science. To my mind, there are two difficulties that the account has to overcome: First, “essence” is medieval shorthand for Aristotle’s “what it is”, and given the mutable character of creation (and especially Aristotle’s introduction of prime matter into the essences of cosmic things), it is not obvious how a created essence can be the principle of a scientific certitude; second it is not clear why one should identify the divine ideas with essences as understood by the Greek tradition as filtered though and developed by the Medievals.  Taking Scripture seriously, for example, suggests that the divine ideas are less about essences and more about concrete, unique historical facts. The Medieval “Book of creation” is not a story of hierarchically ordered essences which the human mind is called to read off of nature and arrange in a universal system, but simply facts that become universal and unchanging in the human mind but have no basis for this sort of existence elsewhere.


Physics as a substitute for science

No small part of Newton’s scientific success consisted in putting off the demands of science (that is, of knowing nature) – his last verdict on his Principia is that he will feign no hypotheses about what gravity is  but will stick to describing its activity in mathematical terms. This is a subtle but dramatic reformulation of the claim running from Plato to Galileo that numbers and geometrical quantities themselves were at work in nature, for in admitting that his mathematical descriptions do not get within the phenomena he is describing, Newton is making mathematics an extrinsic to the physical world. Mathematics is seen as substituting for nature and is not to be mistaken with knowing what is really happening in it i.e. it is at best a prologue to science and not science itself.

The biological account of the self-evident

One account of the self-evident is to see it as biological necessity, which opens the possibility that this necessity does not reveal the way things are. To realize this possibility would mean that we were stuck necessarily thinking P even though we had good reasons for thinking ~P. Noam Chomsky* argues that this is the case for our idea of “physical” and “material”, sc. that we cannot but think that physical causality involves immediate contact, and yet our physical theories have been unable to explain the physical in light of this ever since Newton. Those of us who hold to traditional philosophies of nature ought to figure out what we are going to do with these sorts of claims.


*The lecture makes no mention of any of his political beliefs.

What is Descartes’s “natural light”?

The natural light, and its corresponding effect, sc. clear and distinct ideas are central to the argument of the Mediations, but Descartes leaves the ideas relatively undeveloped.

Descartes opposes the natural light to ideas that arise in him by a spontaneous impulse, and it seems to me that he has more than one thing in mind, viz:

1.) Claims whose only warrant is repeated experience.This swan is white, that swan is white, that other swan is white… if we see things constantly together, there is a spontaneous impulse to think that they must go together.

2.) Things that are associated by a more or less superficial resemblance. Wild rice looks like rice, whales look like fish, unjust laws do lawlike things, “Cancer” gives one the impression that it is a single disease that could be unlocked by a single cure, etc.

3.) Things that are divided by more or less superficial differences.  Cannonballs and the moon, corn and the grass in my yard, etc.

Things known in the natural light, in opposition to these, appear to be known by the mind perceiving a necessary nexus between the subject and the predicate in a way that does not reduce to experience or appearance. Even if these ideas require an experience, the warrant for the their truth is not repeated experience. Descartes gives the examples of the greater angle in a triangle subtends the greater side, the less perfect cannot formally cause the more perfect, and God exists. 

Co-dependence in natural and positive law

-Positive law needs natural law in order to be law at all, in the sense that an unjust law is not a sort of law; but natural law needs positive law in order to be law at all, in the sense that law has to be applied in concrete circumstances. Positive right might be just an extension of natural right, but natural right needs to be extended  since the latter comes to us as undetermined to an indefinite number of historical circumstances, different regimes, various ways that hearts are hardened, etc.

Notes on God as the source of morality

Kyle Cupp at Vox Nova was critical of an argument by Peter Kreeft that God is the foundation of the moral law. Part of Kyle’s critique involves playing down the fact that Kreeft is not making a moral argument but a cosmological argument, but there are still interesting questions that arise around the argument in question.

1.) Kreeft appeals to the moral law as unchangeable and eternal, but it is questionable if St. Thomas would call moral laws eternal in a meaningful way (i.e. beyond the sense that everything is eternal in the mind of God, if it’s given God exists).  It is hard to see why the moral laws we know would be any more eternal than the Pythagorean theorem that we know, and in Thomistic theory, the latter is not eternal nor immutable. As the objections in the articles linked to make clear, this is a point of dispute between Thomas and Augustine. Gilson does a particularly impressive job making a harmony between the two accounts in Chapter V of his Christian Philosophy of St. Augustine (esp. pp 68 and following.). 

2.) The idea of a “basis” or “foundation” or “source” of morality  seems to be an effect of morality conceived of as obligation or law, followed by the idea that any mutable, contingent laws must participate in an immutable one (in this sense, Kreeft’s argument is just a concrete application of the ideas used in cosmological arguments, bolstered by the fact that we [i.e. Anglophones in the contemporary world] seem to have an easier time perceiving the dependence that mutable or variable laws have on unchanging one, or the dependence of positive law/right on natural law/right) St. Thomas, on the other hand, viewed the source of morality as the ultimate goal or end or action, and he gave arguments for why only the creator could be such a goal. This makes for a very different sort of theistic argument from moral facts, one where God becomes the foundation of morality because he is the goal of human life.

3.) It’s interesting that Kreeft (or Craig, who gives a similar argument) does not appeal to conscience, as Newman did when he gave much the same argument. Even as recently as Gaudium et Spes this sort of argument would have made conscience basic and fundamental. I wonder if we’ve grown wary of appeals to conscience.

« Older entries