Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Posting Delays

Dear Readers: Don't fret, I do plan on continuing my Problem of Evil blogging soon. Things have been some what busy as of late, I haven't had time to post anything. I hope to post part 4 in the coming days. Thanks for your patience.


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Bigger Picture (Problem of Evil #3)

(This is part 3 of series on the Problem of Evil)

The next Theodicy is The Bigger Picture Theodicy. If an individual had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to prevent some horrible crime (say murder or a rape), we normally think that person is open to moral criticism for failing to intervene. Similarly, the claim is that God is open to moral criticism as well for failing to intervene. This Theodicy claims that God’s greater knowledge allows him to know that he shouldn’t interfere in cases that we would normally think a person should interfere. Given our limited, finite knowledge, we don't see the bigger picture and think God should have interfered. God, however, sees the bigger picture and recognizes that he should not interfere because his interference would do more harm than good. In this way, God is doing the right thing in letting the evil occur.

For example, in the movie Spiderman, Peter Parker could have interfered to prevent an armed robber from getting away. He didn't act as a kind of revenge on the wrestling match organizer. The robber then ends up killing Parker's uncle. Had Parker known the bigger picture, he would have stopped the armed robber when he had the chance. Similarly, when we criticize God for not acting to prevent an evil, we are like Parker. We don't have the wider context of knowledge that justifies God's non-interference.

This Theodicy suffers from some similar problems to the previous two(Greater Good and Higher Morality).

First, it fails the Holocaust test. What greater context of knowledge justifies non-interference in such a case? For example, if we are Parker and see the armed robber running down the hall, it is not too hard for us to imagine a scenario that calls for our interference. But what scenario justifies non-interference in the murder of 6 million? One scenario that is sometimes offered is that possibly if God had interfered that would have eventually lead to the deaths of millions more in some other context. But this calls into question God's omnipotence. With infinite power, he should be able to prevent both catastrophes. It also raises the problem of whether lives are interchangeable. That is, is it morally justified to let 1 die to prevent the death of 2(or 2 million)? Most Utilitarians would answer yes, but it's not clear that doing so is justifiable outside of utilitarianism.

Second, we are left in the same obscure position as with Divine Purpose: we don't have access to the Divine Purpose or to the Bigger Picture. Thus, we have no way to evaluate whether the non-interference is justified on the basis of these. For example, to badly paraphrase Hume, maybe the bigger picture available to God is that to have interfered in the Holocaust would have scratched his finger. Surely, if that is the case, God is not all-good. Thus, to be able to justify this Theodicy we need to know the bigger picture as well. But since we don't have access, the Theodicy is ultimately incomprehensible, thus failing to provide a resolution to the paradox.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Higher Morality (Problem of Evil #2)

(This is part 2 of series on the Problem of Evil)

The essential idea with this Theodicy is that God should be judged by some higher, divine morality. From the perspective of this higher morality, what is described or characterized as evil by human morality is actually good.

Like the The Greater Good Theodicy, this Theodicy ends up denying the existence of evil. What we take to be evil is really good. And so it fails the basic test of maintaining all four claims of the paradox (see the original post).

Another problem here is that it sets human morality at odds with the higher divine morality. If the higher morality is going to judge the Holocaust, fatal disease outbreaks, etc, as good, while human morality will judge them bad, then the 'good' in each of these moralities are different. Good on the higher morality is not what we mean by good.

But, then, which good is being ascribed when we say God is all-good? If it is the human morality usage, then we appear to be right back with the paradox. If it is the divine morality usage, then maybe we resolve the paradox but at the cost of understanding. We don't know what divine morality means by good if it would describe the Holocaust as good. Moreover, we have no access to what divine morality is. So, we do not understand what all-good means.

Some theists will accept this. God is obscure (as Patrick mentioned in one of the comments to an earlier post). But if we are aiming to get an understanding of the problem of evil and get to some comprehensible resolution, then this is not an answer. The only reason to engage in Theodicy is because one is uncomfortable with paradox presented by the problem of evil. If one is satisfied with obscurity, I doubt the paradox would be all that disquieting in the first place.

The central problem, then, with this Theodicy is that it makes 'good' incomprehensible, and so the whole Theodicy is incomprehensible.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Observing Yom Kippur

So what does a secular, humanistic Jew do on Yom Kippur? Obviously, I don’t daven in shul, afflict my soul, or make myself pitiable before God.

One of the most identifiable observances of Yom Kippur is the fasting. I do a symbolic fast. That is, I don’t fast sundown to sundown. But I do set aside several hours on Yom Kippur for reflection and during that period, I don’t eat (though I do drink water). This is often only several hours, though some years I’ll do it most of the day. I am not going to torture myself all day merely for tradition. So on the years where we plan a Break Fast or attend one, I will fast for most of the day to make the Break Fast more meaningful. On years like this one, where we don’t have a Break Fast, I only fast for the period of reflection. It’s a symbolic or ritualized fast. I am fasting to connect with the traditions of the Jewish people, to remind myself what day it is, and to make sure I engage in the kind of reflection appropriate for the day.

I reflect on the past year. I go month by month, focusing on accomplishments and achievements; and also on failures and shortcomings. What could I have done better? As part of that, I also recall harm or pain I might have caused another that I have not corrected. I think how I can correct or seek forgiveness for these; and make a plan to do that.

I think about the future: what are my goals, but also how can I improve myself. What parts of my character need work? And what am I going to do about it?

I also spend time thinking about what being Jewish means to me. I am strongly connected to the Jewish people and to my Jewish roots. I want preserve them, deepen them, and celebrate them. (And so I write blog posts like this)

Lastly, I reflect on any significant losses. This past year, as many know, we lost our beloved cat Sylvia. I spent some time looking at photos of Sylvia, reading the blog posts about her illness, and just letting myself miss her. It was painful, but important.

Good Yontiv, Good Fast, and Shana Tova!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Secular Yom Kippur

It's that time of year again when I repost my article on Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur starts tonight.

Self-Judgment Days

Friday, October 03, 2008

Greater Good (Problem of Evil #1)

Welcome back to my series analyzing the problem of evil (See the opening post). The first Theodicy is: "The Greater Good".

According to this Theodicy, God is not evil because the suffering and injustice in the world serve some greater good. A dentist who has to pull a patient's infected tooth causes pain and suffering, but since this is done for the greater good, it is not an evil act. Similarly, God causes the pain and suffering in the world but these serve some greater good and so it doesn't count as evil.

One problem with this Theodicy is that it actually doesn't resolve the paradox. It denies the fourth claim that evil exists by making what appears to be evil into a means to the end of some greater good. Evil is transformed into an instrumental good.

But even ignoring this problem, this Theodicy doesn't pass the Holocaust Test. What greater good could justify the horrors of the Holocaust? This further undermines the claim that God is all-good. Even assuming that the Holocaust serves some divine purpose, that purpose must be evil if the only way to achieve it was through the Holocaust. An end that is only reachable by a means that is unjust is itself unjust.

Does such a general principle mean that the dentist is evil? This indicates a lack of clarity in this discussion. Are suffering, pain, and injustice equivalent? Injustice is irredeemable. An injustice cannot be justified by the outcomes achieved by it. It remains an injustice regardless of the outcome. Pain and suffering, on the other hand, are not like this. A pain can be justified by the outcome: as the dentist analogy shows. Notice how one's evaluation of the dentist changes if he causes more pain than necessary, has no reason for removing the tooth, does little to reduce the pain of his patient, or performs the operation without the consent of the patient. So long as the pain is serving an accepted purpose it is not deemed wrong. The pain becomes a type of injustice when it is forced upon an innocent party or where the goal of the pain is some injustice.

The Holocaust brought about the pain, suffering, and death of millions of innocent individuals. It is not, therefore, analogous to the dentist's drill. It is an injustice of cosmic proportions; and as such, it is deeply offensive or greatly confused to characterize it as an instrumental good to some divine purpose or greater good.

This Theodicy does not resolve the paradox. It moves the question of God's goodness from the current evil to the unknowable divine purpose to which this current evil is supposed to be a means. Since we are not privy to divine purposes or the greater goods the evils are supposed to serve, we are not in a position to judge the merit of these ends or goods. But, that means we are not in a position to judge God's goodness either. Thus the problem of evil remains.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Thoughts on the VP debate

Some initial thoughts on the debate:

Both did what I think they had to do.

Biden: try to link McCain/Palin to Bush.
Palin: bring her energy and her down home style; don't look stupid.

Biden: threw around a lot of numbers/over detailed; didn't look relaxed.
Palin: didn't give details or much substance.

Seemed like a draw to me. Nothing too surprising (or all that interesting).

These things are less debates and more a series of sound-bytes. God, I hate politics.

It's even more clear to me that I am not with either party. Fundamentally, neither the GOP or the Dems are for individual liberty.