Your Very Own Problem of Evil

David Banach

Department of Philosophy

Saint Anselm College

 

Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him...

But I will maintain my own ways before Him.

. . . . . . . .

Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!--

That I might come even to His seat!

I would order my case before Him

And fill my mouth with arguments.

                                                            The Book of Job

 

The need to understand is an attempt to recover what one has lost.

Peter Hoeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow

 

 

I. The Problem: Why is there evil? How could an all powerful and loving God allow evil? These problems I call the general problem of evil. Apart from these questions another set of questions arises for every human when their particular lives and affairs are afflicted with evil: Why me? Why now? Why this particular evil, at this particular time? This is the particular problem of evil. Even if you grant that evil in general is necessary for the best possible world, you are still able to ask “Why does it have to happen to me?” I contend that our own personal problems of evil present additional problems even when it might seem that we have an adequate solution to the general problem and that these additional problems eventually undermine any supposed general solution. A solution to the general problem of evil requires a solution to each and every one of our personal problems of evil, and I will argue that there is good reason to believe that your very own problem of evil is insoluble.

A. Some strange logical properties of the problem:
1. True in general, but true of none: When a group of people are to leave a room, it is necessary that one of them must leave the room first, yet it is not necessary of any one of them that they must be the one. Showing that it is necessary that there is evil in the world is not the same as showing that it is necessary for some particular person.

2. The questioner is part of the problem: In addition to this apparently queer property, the problem is also indexical. Even if it is necessary in general, and even if, in addition, it is necessary that some particular person (call them ‘x’) be the one, it is still not clear that it is necessary that the unfortunate one is me. Even if I can grant that it is necessary that someone must leave the life boat and that it must be some particular person (say the person who picks the short straw), I still may not see why it has to be me. Though objectively all the particular values of ‘x’ might be equivalent, it makes all the difference in the world, to me anyway, that it not be me.

B. Two problems of evil and their relation. Alvin Plantinga has drawn the distinction between two problems of evil:

1. The Theological problem: How is the existence of natural and moral evil compatible with the existence of an all powerful, all knowing, and completely good God? This problem afflicts only those who believe in God.
2. The Existential problem: How can human beings be happy and lead their lives coherently in a world that contains evil? This is a problem even atheists have.
3. Their Relation: One might think that a solution of the existential is necessary for the solution of the theological. (If a good God would not create conscious creatures who could not be happy.) One might also think that a really adequate solution to the theological might solve the existential. (If it is really the best possible world, then we should be happy about it.)

But this ignores the particular problem of evil and its relation to the existential problem of evil.

II. Dostoevsky and the Existential Problem of Evil:  The existential problem of evil arises from the conflict between our particular, subjective engagement in our lives and the demands that reason or objectivity makes upon them. This might be best illustrated by what I call Life’s Paradox:

1. I should be happy about good things.

2. I should be sad about bad, awful, or terrible things.

3. In the sense used here, being happy or sad about something is the recognition of some value, or violation of it, in a situation and adopting that value as mine.

4. Objectively, there is no distinction between my goods and evils and another’s or between those distant and those present to me.

5. I cannot adopt all goods and evils as mine. (They are too many, and I too small.)

----------------------------------------------------------------

Therefore, I cannot meet the demands of objectivity. I cannot be happy about the world.

The existential problem of evil, simply put, is the problem of how I can be happy if I cannot be happy in the world I inhabit. (There is, after all, nowhere else for me to be.)

        Dostoevsky, in the famous chapter “Rebellion” from The Brothers Karamazov, makes what I think are three distinct arguments against the possibility of accepting any possible solution to the theological problem of evil as a solution to the existential problem.  All of these hinge upon the irreducibility of the particular problem of evil.

1. Taking life seriously requires caring about evil and working to prevent it in this world. If this is the best possible world then changing it would make it worse. If the bigger picture is so beyond our comprehension that even things that seem evil to us might be necessary, we have no idea what evils we should try to prevent. Therefore, the reason why evils are necessary cannot be beyond human comprehension. It must be a reason that I can adopt as my own, it must seem necessary to me. Dostoevsky’s character Ivan says that out of love of humanity he would have to give his ticket to heaven back, since to accept it would render his actions in this life unintelligible. (Albert Camus, in The Plague, adopts this argument of Dostoevsky’s when he has one of his characters ask whether a priest can call a doctor.)

2. Much of the chapter “Rebellion” is devoted to Ivan recounting, in excruciating detail, stories of the sufferings of children. We could not see a child killed in front of us and still go on enjoying our day as if nothing happened. The demands of objectivity require that we cannot fail to take this loss of innocent life seriously and still continue taking our own lives seriously without falling into incoherence, without undermining our ability to adopt the values we encounter as our own. Given the demands that objectivity places upon us, to destroy the ability to feel bad is to also destroy the ability to feel good. Hence, we cannot allow the existence of any theological solution to the problem of evil to allow us to let the problem be solved for us.  (The purpose of describing the suffering of innocents is often supposed to be that it cannot be explained as the result of any moral evil, but the real point is that we cannot take our lives seriously, cannot be happy in the world, without the innocence that these acts destroy.)
3. In one of the most famous passages in the novel, Ivan asks Alyosha, if he could eradicate all the evil and suffering in the world by torturing one innocent child, whether he would do so. Most interpret this questions as an attack on the theological solution:  This is what God did, according to the traditional view, when he chose to give us free will to make the best possible world knowing that it would result in the torture of innocents. The real argument, however, comes when Ivan asks whether we could accept the happiness that came from such a trade-off. The rub, of course, is that each of us makes that trade-off at every moment when we enjoy our lives despite the suffering of countless innocents. Given the demands of objectivity, we can be happy in our lives only by ignoring the suffering of countless innocents, by failing to make them our own. Even if the evil is necessary in a general sense, we cannot make it our own given the radical contingency of each person’s particular problem of evil.

III. Your very own existential problem of evil: Your very own problem of evil cannot be solved by any general explanation of the existence of the evil in the world for the very reasons that Dostoevsky makes clear. No general account of the existence of evil can induce you to make evil your own in the way required by objectivity if you are to continue to take your own life seriously. The particular contingent features of your particular evils cannot be seen as necessary in the same way as evil in general might be. It is essential to your problem of evil that the good harmed was yours and that it was violated in the particular way that it was. But to accept this as necessary is precisely what it means to reject it as yours. Even if an evil is necessary, I can still ask “But why me?” But this question arises merely from the incompatibility of the conditions of my particular values and the demands of objectivity in a world where the the things I care about do not generally obtain. Human will is the individual affirmation of some general value in a particular action. No general value that negates itself in application to the particular case can serve as the basis for an action. We despise evil because we care so deeply about the goods it violates, because we have made those goods our own. We cannot escape that evil by enveloping it in a general conception of the good. By disowning the evil, we lose the ability to make the good our own.

        How, then, ought we to respond to the evils in our life? Ought we to accept the world?

1. Accepting the world in which evil has occurred and putting oneself in harmony with it would mean abandoning the good that was violated.

2. But we cannot reject the world either. If the world contains such good things that we can hardly stand to see them violated, it hardly makes sense to respond to this by rejecting the world. We should appreciate and accept the goods that remain. This is at the the heart of the Camus’s insistence upon accepting the absurd.  But this still does not redeem the loss we have suffered. It does not transform that evil into a good.

3. Life’s paradox does not admit an easy resolution. The attempt to find a harmony between the things that matter to us and things that matter period is as essential to the nature of our actions as the limitations that make it impossible. The rational response of a limited intellect is to hope, to continue to try to see the goods we value as characterizing the basic features of the universe and the evil we suffer as being repudiated and overcome by that same universe. Failure is not an option, if we hope to live coherent lives. The drive to understand, futile or not, is the appropriate response to evil. “The need to understand is an attempt to recover what one has lost.”

Your Very Own Problem of Evil

David Banach

Department of Philosophy

Saint Anselm College

 

               Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called

 Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray

 yonder.

               And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee,

 and began to be sorrowful and very heavy.

               Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful,

 even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me.

               And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and

 prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me:

 nevertheless not as I will, but as thou [wilt].

                                                                                                         Gospel of Matthew

 

Though He slay me, yet will  I trust Him...

But I will maintain my own ways before Him.

. . . . . . . .

Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!--

That I might come even to His seat!

I would order my case before Him

And fill my mouth with arguments.

                                                            The Book of Job

 

The need to understand is an attempt to recover what one has lost.

Peter Hoeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow

 

 

  I. The Particular problem of evil: Evil has always brought to mind of philosophers the questions: Why is there evil? How could an all powerful and loving God allow evil? How can humans be happy in a world that contains evil. These problems I call the general problem of evil. Apart from these questions another set of questions arises for every human when their particular lives and affairs are afflicted with evil: Why me? Why now? Why this particular evil, at this particular time? This is the particular problem of evil. I contend that our personal problems of evil present additional problems even when it might seem that we have an adequate solution to the general problem, and that these additional problems eventually undermine any supposed general solution. A solution to the general problem of evil requires a solution to each and every one of our personal problems of evil, and I will argue that there is good reason to believe that your very own problem of evil is insoluble.

               A. Some strange logical properties of the problem.

                              1. True in general, but true of none.

                              2. The questioner is part of the answer.

               A. Two problems of evil and their relation.

                              1. The Theological problem. How is the existence of natural and moral evil compatible with the existence of an all powerful, all knowing, and completely good God.             

                              2. The Existential problem. How can human beings be happy in a world that contains evil and in                          which it is inevitable that they, personally, will suffer evil.

                              3. The solution of the existential is necessary for the solution of the theological, and the solution to the theological is necessary, in a way, for the existential. In addition the solution of the existential problem is sufficient for the solution to the theological if one defines happiness as a harmony of one's subjective values with the objective values of the universe.

 

 

 

II. Solutions and objections: The principle that makes all of these solutions fail is that the goods of this world are really good and that evil really violates them.

      A. Evil is an absence or lack of being.

           1. All things are good insofar as they exist, hence God is not responsible for the creation of evil.

           2. many things are evil in virtue of what they are, not because of what they lack. It is only trivially true that a thing is what it is because of what it is not.

      B. Evil is necessary for a greater good.

           1. Evil brings about a greater good, hence it is still the best possible world despite the fact that it contains evil. The standard Christian account of evil as due to man's sin is an account of this type.

           2. The evil must really be logically necessary for the greater good, not just contingently necessary because of some previous mistake, weakness, or imperfection.

      D. Evil is a logically necessary component in the best possible emergent whole.

           1. An emergent whole is one in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts and in which each of the parts is transformed within the context of the whole. Evil is transformed into a greater good in the context of some emergent whole.

           2. This may be the case without out being able to understand how it is the case from our limited perspective.

           3. Dostoevsky's objection: This solution denies or abandons the value of the particular value harmed by the evil. It almost makes the evil lose its status as evil to make it into a good.

 

III. The particular problem of evil. Why your very own problem of evil cannot be solved by any of these solutions even if they are true from an objective standpoint.

      A. The particular contingent features of your particular evils cannot be seen as necessary in the same way as evil in general might be. It is essential to your problem of evil that the good harmed was yours and that is was violated in the particular way that it was. But this particular violation of this particular good cannot be seen as necessary without abandoning that particular good.

      B. Possible responses:

           1. The evil was necessary as a means to a greater good.

           2. The evil increases our awareness and appreciation of goodness. Pain is a mode of awareness of a good.

           3. Overcoming evil is necessary to reach some higher moral or experiential state.

           4. Accepting evil, even out of blind faith or trust, develops the ability to submit our will to God, which is necessary for happiness.

      C. The argument from contingency. If evil is not contingent then evil is really good (fatalism). If it is contingent then evil will occur from a competition of values in which the best possible thing does not happen.

Things must either happen for a sufficient reason and be determined by that sufficient reason or no

      D. Why there cannot be a solution that is beyond our comprehension:

           1. Dostoevsky's objection again.

           2. An understanding of the reason for evil is necessary for a solution to the existential problem.

 

IV. Your very own existential problem of evil. How ought we to respond to the evils in our life. Ought we to accept the world?

      1. Accepting the world in which evil has occurred, and putting oneself in harmony with it would mean abandoning the good that was violated.

      2. But we cannot reject the world either. We should appreciate and accept the goods that remain. This is the heart of the existentialist solution, but this still does not redeem the loss we have suffered. It does not transform that evil into a good.

      3. But happiness and really appreciating the goods one is presented with is impossible unless one can accept the world.

      4. The rational response of a limited intellect is to hope. To continue to try to see the goods we find as characterizing the basic features of the universe and the evil we suffer as being repudiated and overcome by that same universe.

               The drive to understand is the appropriate response to evil. When it dies, we have really lost the goods we sought to preserve.