Theodicies & Messy Desks by Hugh Hunter


Theodicies & Messy Desks

Hugh Hunter on the Infinite Problem of Goods & Evil

When I teach the philosophy of theodicies, I always make sure to introduce Hunter's rule of theodicies: Don't open with 'em. Like a slowly building joke, a theodicy is all about the journey. Skip the intricate architecture of assumptions, and the whole thing collapses into un-persuasive glibness. That's because a theodicy is an answer to a problem, specifically to some version of the Problem of Evil, and if you don't define the problem, your answer won't make any sense.

The Problem of Evil can be captured, I think, in three assumptions. It is a problem because the assumptions seem inconsistent, and yet we Christians believe all three.

1. God loves everything (in the neologism of the philosophy of religion, he is "omnibenevolent").

2. God is omnipotent.

3. Evil continues to exist.

You can restate the problem in lots of ways. For example, you can narrow the scope of the third assumption. Maybe some particular evil is stuck in your craw. That's fine, because all that matters is the tension between the three assumptions, and since we're talking about a perfect, all-powerful creator, even the most trivial evil will do. I wish it were possible to pour my morning coffee very fast without it splashing: why didn't God tweak the laws of fluid dynamics to relieve me of this very slight annoyance? And if you are inclined to dismiss my trivial gripe about coffee, you're illustrating another point about the importance of framing a theodicy: it's psychologically difficult to do so in purely logical terms.

Alongside the logical Problem of Evil there is another problem, which is not logical and does not admit of an answer. Sometimes the question, "How could God let X happen?" is a cry that demands comfort rather than explanation. Philosophers are not in the comfort-giving business. It is for the purely logical question that my splashy coffee is as relevant a data point as the Holodomor.

Some Plausible Theodicies

The aim is not to comfort; it is only to show the consistency of our three assumptions. There are many ways to do so, and the more plausible the story that ties them together, the better the theodicy. For example, you might say that all the evil is the work of the devil. That solves the problem, but it leaves you with the new problem of how to explain why a perfect God made the devil. A better theodicy would leave you with no further explaining to do. To see how this would work, consider an analogue to the Problem of Evil that I just made up: the problem of extension-evil. Here are three assumptions that I hope my students and I share:

1. I want the best for my students.

2. I am able to grant all extensions.

3. Not all extensions will be granted.

I've mirrored the Problem of Evil, but almost everyone can see that the assumptions that make up the problem of extension-evil are not incompatible at all. And the resolving story, about how not every extension should be granted, runs parallel to a story that is often used as a theodicy for the real Problem of Evil: the free will defence. Just as some extensions must remain un-granted in a world where students repeatedly make poor life choices, so evil in the world may be a consequence of free choices, perhaps of Adam and Eve's free and poor choice to eat the apple. Maybe human freedom is the source of evil.

Or maybe human freedom is part of the source. The best theodicy, for my money, was developed by G. W. -Leibniz. His 1710 book, Theodicy, employed the logic of possibility and necessity, which led him to the technical term, best of all possible worlds. Leibniz thought that there were probably more properties besides freedom that God would want to see in his creation. For example, God would recognize that richness matters: a universe where New York was just a Zen garden would be more tranquil but less rich than ours. These constraints would act like filters, narrowing down possible worlds worth creating in God's Excel spreadsheet. After all the possibilities were filtered, they could be ranked from best to worst, and the one at the top of the list would be the best of all possible worlds. It's reasonable to think that it would contain some evil, given the other requirements imposed. And so the Problem of Evil is resolved.

The Problem of Asymmetric Evil

Leibniz is also an illustration of Hunter's law. His theodicy became famous and entered popular culture, with the poet Alexander Pope concluding his Essay on Man in a tone of optimism which Leibniz would have qualified much more carefully: "Whatever is, is right." Exposed, its framing assumptions lost in philosophical murk, Leibniz's theodicy was easy prey for Voltaire's funny, influential, and pretty much philosophy-free book, Candide. The young Candide and his Leibniz-like mentor stumble from evil to evil, their circumstances mocking the notion that whatever is, is right—things can get pretty bad; betcha didn't think of that, Leibniz!

Voltaire has to shuffle his characters around Europe to make sure they hit all the low notes: the Lisbon earthquake, the Spanish Inquisition, and so on. But the woes of the world all aggregate on our mobile phones today. And with them, a question: isn't the world awfully chaotic to be explained away as the best of all possible worlds? My problem isn't just that there is evil; the problem is its asymmetric distribution. Some people get a lot of badness dumped into their lives; others lead lives that are comparatively evil free.

Do you think, as I do, that life begins at conception? Then so do our philosophical problems, since only about 30 percent of conceived children survive long enough to encounter the tender mercies of the pro-choice world. If you make it out of the womb, your life will be greatly influenced by the lottery of health, location, race, and so on. The problem is the asymmetric distribution of goods. And it is exacerbated by the fact that natural science would predict such a distribution. Where Christians struggle to explain how this could be just, naturalistically minded atheists can smugly say, We told you so. You might call this the problem of asymmetric evil.

1. God loves everything.

2. God is able to distribute goods evenly across the world.

3. The world is a mess.

You can also narrow the scope of the problem. You might point out that the Church is a mess (one of the few contingent claims I can be certain will be true at time of printing), or that the Bible is a messy collection of apparently unrelated stories. Any of these will do to generate the problem of asymmetric evil. And for all these problems, my theodicy offers no comfort, nor even a proof that asymmetry is good, only one that it might be good. Having thus observed my own rule about theodicies, here is how I think one might go.

A Theodicy for Asymmetric Evil

Consider my messy desk. Occasionally, I clean it, and the reason I do is that it has become unusable. I move my dictionaries over to one side, put the pens and pencils back in their cup, sort through stacks of paper determining what I can safely get rid of, and clear out stale, half-finished bags of trail mix. Then at last, I can find things. Chaos gives way to order, and my desk is useful again.

If you saw my desk at peak mess, you would rightly conclude that I had neglected my job as orderer. The problem of asymmetric evil looks at the messy world and reaches the same conclusion. But let's return to my desk. Suppose that I had a better memory, so that I could drop an item and then always recall where I had put it down. In this case, cleaning the desk would be superfluous; I'd already know where everything was. Or suppose I had the kind of mind that St. Thomas Aquinas believed angels have, one that would allow me not just to remember but to quickly calculate from the basic laws of physics exactly into what cranny my errant paperclip had slipped. In this case, again, cleaning the desk would be unnecessary.

Now, God is omniscient. He doesn't even need to calculate; he already knows where everything is on my desk no matter how I shuffle it about. A finite being might find an orderly desk more usable, but God would find the desk equally usable in any state.

The point is that, for human minds, the complexity we call "messy" is hard to understand, and therefore hard to control. Ordering the world so that it would be easier to understand would be necessary if we were trying to control it. But there is no reason to suppose that God operates under similar limitations. If this is a just world, then God has individually considered the plight of every conceived but unborn baby. But that he has done so is a trivial consequence of omniscience. That's the point of saying he sees the sparrow fall.

Thoughts About Complexity

My little theodicy can help us calibrate our expectations about complexity. The Bible purports to be a book that would be a good reading choice for any person in any situation. How would you write a book with the target audience of everybody, always? If imagination sputters out, then you have no reason to suppose that a collection of stories about (among other things) tribesmen cheating each other might not be what is needed. Boccaccio's wonderful story of the Jew who is converted to Christianity after seeing the evils of Rome, concluding that the Holy Ghost must be involved since on their own these people would surely have driven the Church into the ground, reminds us that there are other ways of viewing our local situation.

Parents know that loving children equally does not entail treating them in the same way. It would be very glib, obviously, to say that placing one child of God in Toronto and one in Mogadishu are just two ways of showing love. But let me reiterate Hunter's rule of theodicies. The reason you don't open with 'em is that they always seem unsatisfying without the problem that motivates them. The question is whether the asymmetry is, on its own, evidence against the existence of God.

My claim is that there is no reason to think that an omniscient God would prefer an ordering that would seem simple, or even comprehensible to our finite minds. What, you might ask, becomes of the principle that the simplest explanation is likely to be true (aka the principle of parsimony, aka Ockham's Razor)? This is certainly a foundational principle for natural science. But I'm at a loss as to why atheists feel entitled to it.

If you imagine all the possible solutions to a problem stretching infinitely onward into complexity, there is some cut-off point beyond which a human mind can no longer follow the solution. Science begins with the assumption that the solution will fall into the finite chunk of the comprehensible, not the infinitely larger remainder. This is an infinitely bad bet, unless the odds are somehow skewed in simplicity's favor, as if a Generic User Interface has been imposed on the code of the world. I think this is what Christians mean when we say that the world was created for us. But when we ask about God's arrangement for each individual created thing, we are digging under the GUI and looking at the code directly. It ought not to surprise us if it operates at a level of complexity that we can't follow.

My argument is that such complexity is not evidence against the existence of God. It is to be expected, given Christian assumptions. And so the point of my little theodicy could be restated as just this: simplicity and symmetry are goods, but they are not the only goods. They must be balanced with other goods, goods like freedom, richness, and so on. Might this preposterous pig of a world, as Yeats put it, be the result of such a compromise? I think it might. 

Hugh Hunter (Ph.D.) is a philosopher living in Ottawa.