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The Pope's a Millionaire

Entry 2038, on 2020-04-17 at 21:10:15 (Rating 3, Religion)

While I explore the internet, especially on social media, I often come across witty cartoons, pictures, and quotes which might have deeper meanings and allude to the most interesting problems in various spheres of human knowledge. As you might know, from previous blog posts, I find many philosophical subjects interesting, and even though I have no formal knowledge of philosophy that doesn't stop me from making my opinion known on these topics!

So, the latest item of this type showed a picture (obviously fake) of the Pope participating in the TV game show "Who wants to be a Millionaire". The question he needed to answer was: "What is God's role in the COVID-19 outbreak?", and the possible answers were...

A: Unaware it is happening.
B: Aware, but unwilling to stop it.
C: Aware, but unable to stop it.
D: Deliberately caused it

Hopefully my readers will recognise this as a variant of the classic problem in theology: the problem of evil. If you aren't familiar with this, here is the definition from Wikipedia: "The problem of evil is the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil and suffering with an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God. Or as the first known presentation by the Greek philosopher Epicurus, as attributed and made popular by David Hume, puts it: Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?"

Before I comment I should emphasise that this problem is not represented very well by its name. The word "evil" here often implies intentional, deliberate harm, but the problem is as much about suffering caused by any event, even those not caused by any person. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes, pandemics, and droughts would be in this category, in contrast to events which might be more traditionally associated with evil, such as murder and wars.

So let's just go through this step by step. Here are the arguments generally used to outline the problem...

1. God exists.
2. God is omniscient (he knows about everything).
3. God is omnipotent (he can do anything).
4. God is good (he wants to help the conscious entities he created).
5. Bad things happen unnecessarily (at least, apparently unnecessarily). Call this "evil".
6. All 5 of the above cannot be true simultaneously (God knows about evil, can stop it, wants to stop it, but doesn't).

Of course, there are numerous objections to the above logic, so let's go through those and see if they make much sense...

1. Maybe what we perceive as "evil" is just God working in some mysterious way which we (as limited humans) cannot comprehend. This is known as "skeptical theism", and states that any bad event which happens might be necessary to prevent an even greater bad event we are unaware of. In other words, God works in mysterious ways.

I find this extremely fatuous, and a clear example of "special pleading" (this is an informal logical fallacy where the person making the argument applies special conditions to one situation which would be unacceptable anywhere else). For example, if we wouldn't excuse a political leader who is causing suffering amongst his people for some unspecified greater reason, then we shouldn't allow God that privilege either.

And if God is omnipotent, surely he can prevent both the immediate lesser bad event, and the greater one. Also, he created the universe the way it is, so is ultimately responsible for both the lesser and greater evil.

2. If God gave use the gift of free will, why would we expect that sometimes bad things might result from that freedom? If God controlled every little aspect of our lives to protect us from every possible evil, then we might see that as being the ultimate oppression.

While free will might be an excuse for evil inflicted by other humans, such as one human murdering another, it really cannot be applied to natural events. For example, a storm which kills a thousand people cannot be reasonably seen as the result of us having free will. If we really had free will we could use it to stop bad, natural events, but they happen whether we want them to or not. And while some natural disasters are linked to human activity (and are therefore influenced by free will) that doesn't apply to everything.

And I doubt whether anyone would want God interfering with every little trivial aspect of their lives, but I think most people would appreciate a little bit of help in relation to bigger events that they have no control over. Think of it like a parent who intervenes in a child's life where necessary, while still allowing that child to be independent as much as possible. If most parents can achieve a good balance here, why can't God?

3. God might use bad events as a test of humans, or as a means of spiritual growth (sometimes know as the "Irenaean theodicy"). People often report being more aware of the important aspects of life after a dangerous or traumatic event. Maybe this is just a subtle aspect of God's way of making us better.

I find this argument quite insulting to people who suffer genuine adversity, or even death, as a result of evil. If a young child gets cancer and dies before their first birthday how does that increase their spiritual growth, especially in comparison to what they might have achieved if they had lived a full life?

But maybe we just can't see the bigger picture here, because God is so mysterious and subtle in his actions. This is just another case of special pleading, isn't it.

4. If our lives on Earth were just a small part of a much greater afterlife, then any suffering which occurred during this brief interval might be seen as unimportant compared with an eternity in a perfect heavenly afterlife (no less than Thomas Aquinas originated this "afterlife theodicy").

Even if the evil which might occur before the afterlife seems trivial we still should wonder what is the point. Surely a good life and a good afterlife is better than a bad life and good afterlife. So why doesn't God give us both?

And if a child suffers and dies before attaining the required attributes needed to get into a "good" afterlife, what happens then? Does it matter? if it doesn't, why do we have any time on Earth at all? Why not just go directly to heaven?

5. Yet another approach is to deny the existence of evil. If what we perceive as being evil in fact isn't, then the problem goes away.

Clearly the word has no good universal definition. The OED gives this: "profoundly immoral and wicked, harmful or tending to harm". Unfortunately this only shifts the definition onto other words with poor definitions, like "wicked". But people know evil when they see it in other areas, such as repressive and violent political leaders, so denying the same, admittedly loose, meaning cannot apply to God is just special pleading again.

6. A different approach involves not attempting to deny the truth of the argument, but to turn it around as being a proof of God rather than a denial of his existence (this sometimes known as the "defensive response"). This argument says that in order for evil to exist we must have an objective moral standard to judge against. That moral standard can only be provided by a good God.

But there are numerous ways that a moral standard might arise without a God. For example, the consensus beliefs of a society might be thought of as a moral standard. Sure it's not objective, and it's not fixed, but we have good evidence that moral standards do change, whatever their origin. For example, slavery is not condemned in the Bible, and Christians were partly responsible for both the origin and ultimate end of slavery.

7. Logically we might assert that a reason for the existence of evil, along with an omnipotent, omniscient, good God might exist, but we haven't discovered what it is yet.

This is just a variation on point 1, above, and can be rejected on similar lines. In fact, this seems like the ultimate admission that there is no good answer to the paradox, because saying "there must be an answer, we just don't know what it is" could be applied anywhere, and would rightly be ignored as a serious proposal.

8. The nature of omnipotence has been questioned. Clearly true omnipotence doesn't exist, because we can imagine scenarios where some actions are impossible. For example, what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? God can't have absolute power in that case no matter what form his omnipotence takes.

I have heard this put in a more humorous tone like this: "Can Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that he himself can't eat it?" Critics might say this is just playing with words, but maybe there is an analogy here with God's omnipotence. Maybe we are expecting omnipotence to take a form which makes no logical sense.

But it's very difficult to think of how that might work in this case. If God is good and has sufficient power to create the whole universe then surely stopping the occasional hurricane, earthquake, or famine isn't too much to ask. Yet again, we should compare this with what we would expect from a political leader, and consider whether special pleading might be involved.

9. Yet another approach suggests God might have created the universe, then left it to run without any further interference. Maybe the universe started off perfect, but because of the free will given to humans it has deteriorated since, which God just allows to happen because "his job is done".

This contradicts many of the major religions of the world which clearly state that God has intervened on numerous occasions, and might still do so. Also, why do natural disasters exist, which must be a consequence of the original design of the universe, which God is responsible for?

And it seems like God would be acting like an "absentee parent" in this case. We would criticise a parent for abandoning their child. Why would we not equally criticise God for abandoning his creation?

10. Finally, some of the basic assumptions of the model can be denied. For example, God might exist, but he might not be good, or he might not be aware of every detail of every event in the universe, or he might not have the ability to make any arbitrary change.

Again, most religions insist their God is good, so this idea contradicts most real religions. Also, if God isn't good, why would we take any notice of his wishes? Would he not be an enemy rather than a source of inspiration?

A variation on this is presented in the concept of "The Church of God the Utterly Indifferent" in Kurt Vonnegut's novel, "The Sirens of Titan". In that church, God doesn't care, and the catch-phrase is "I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all".

But this is essentially indistinguishable from a universe where there is no God, expect maybe as an originator of the universe. And that is a somewhat more sophisticated argument which is sometimes offered: that is, that God created the universe and did nothing else. As I said, this contradicts most actual religions, and is open to the argument about whether a good God would not intervene when he could.

From these points, it seems clear that none of these explanations are really very convincing, so let's go back to my original list of steps in this argument...

2. Maybe God isn't omniscient. But even if he doesn't know everything, surely he knows enough to fix some of the bigger problems causing suffering, or he's a pretty second-rate God.

3. Maybe God isn't omnipotent. The same argument applies here: absolute omnipotence isn't required to remove some of the more significant sources of evil. Again, a God without ultimate, or at least extreme, power doesn't seem like much of a God.

4. Maybe God isn't good. Goodness seems like a prime attribute in most religions, and if there is a God who is neutral or evil, why would any religion want to revere him?

5. Maybe there is no real evil. I have covered above why this makes no sense.

So that leaves us with: 1. God doesn't exist. This is not only the best explanation, based on what we know about the universe, but also the most generous to God. God isn't ignorant, incompetent, or evil. He just doesn't exist. Problem solved!

And there's one other suspicious aspect to this whole argument: why would the Pope want to appear on a show like "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" With all the cash the Catholic Church has, he is one already!

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