"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

On Evil and Omnipotence

Many moons ago my undergraduate philosophy-of-religion professor, Jonathan Malino (now at Guilford College), assigned as the course's main text an anthology that is still in print today. One of the essays in that anthology was J.L. Mackie's "Evil and Omnipotence" (Mind 64, No. 244 [1955])—a classic restatement of the problem of evil still so much in academic circulation that, fifty-three years after its initial publication and twenty-eight years after its author's death, there is no way even to see the text online without paying somebody for the privilege. (Check out this Google search page for it.) It is no exaggeration to say that nearly all subsequent work on the problem of evil by philosophers writing in English addresses the problem as Mackie formulated it. What is not yet widely known, however, is that the English Dominican Herbert McCabe, who died in 2001, came up with a reply that, in my opinion, is the best so far.

That essay, "On Evil and Omnipotence," is contained in a posthumous collection of previously unpublished work entitled Faith Within Reason, published a year ago. My aim here to is describe McCabe's argumentative strategy well enough to bring out its importance for readers interested in this sort of thing. You might even buy the anthologies.

Since I'm too lazy to type out Mackie's description of the problem, I shall content myself with that of (now ex-) atheist Antony Flew, who wrote in the same year as Mackie: "Either God cannot abolish evil or he will not; if he cannot, then he is not all-powerful; if he will not then he is not all-good." McCabe also quotes that, which is good enough for his own purposes. What is the theist to reply?

The most common reply is the so-called "Free Will Defense," whose main proponent among philosophers for the past generation has been Alvin Plantinga. The main thesis of the FWD is that it is logically impossible for God to create beings who make free choices while ensuring that such creatures make no evil choices; hence, God cannot be blamed for the evil that we freely do, or for its having the natural consequences it does. Now rather than review Plantinga's intricate version, or other versions of the FWD, I point out that, like Mackie and Flew, McCabe considers the whole idea "worthless." I agree. What's his argument?

As is its wont, one of the best theology blogs out there reviewed FWR as soon as it came out. The reviewer, Protestant pastor Kim Fabricius, is somebody with whose views I am often unsympathetic; but in this case, he's right on target. Thus:

McCabe says RIP to the theodicist’s free-will defence, agreeing with Antony Flew that it is “worthless”, but disagreeing why. It is not, as Flew argues, because freedom is not incompatible with determinism – it is, insists McCabe – but rather because there is a mistaken understanding of freedom at work here, namely that God’s activity and ours are in competition, as if (as I would put it) freedom were a zero-sum game. But as McCabe states: “The idea that God’s causality could interfere with my freedom can only arise from an idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature – a part of the world.”

Quite so. My freedom of action varies inversely with the causal influence other creatures have on me; but God is not a creature, and the relation between his causal activity and mine is not a zero-sum game. God's general causal activity does not consist in making creatures act thus and not otherwise in any particular instance; rather, he creates them both as beings of such-and-such sorts and in their actuality, which includes their activity. God actively and continuously bestows being-as-actuality on us, and in that sense causes even what we do freely. (From the standpoint of theology strictly so-called, a big advantage of McCabe's view, which is essentially that of Aquinas, is how it undergirds "synergism.") Accordingly, the question whether we exercise free will does not, in general, have anything to do with God's degree of causal influence on us, as if it made sense to measure such a thing like we do in the case of creatures. In his general governance of the world, God causes us and our actions in the same way and to the same extent, even granted that some of our actions are free. (Of course that claim depends on the assumption that, as a conceptual matter, causation need not always consist in necessitation—but I don't think such an idea is as controversial today as it was fifty years ago, when Elizabeth Anscombe re-introduced it.) And so it is just wrongheaded to say that it's impossible for God to create a world in which rational creatures always but freely choose what's good. It is perfectly compatible with human freedom that God create such a world, even though he has not in fact created most of us like that.

Such an account does not have freedom being compatible with
determinism—the thesis that whatever we do is necessitated, and thus determined, by factors outside our control. For to act freely is, among other things, to have determined for oneself at least one of one's motives for acting thus-and-such. But it does make human freedom compatible with our being predestined to do only what's good; for in such a scheme, free will is exercised only within the ambit of what's good, and not as a choice between doing good and doing evil. Such, after all, is the freedom of God, both in himself and as incarnate in Christ; and that's the kind of freedom in which the blessed in heaven participate. Such indeed is an indispensable component of the very goal of the Christian life, even if those of us in via haven't got there yet and enjoy only that immature freedom for which sin is still very much a possibility. Hence the FWD, which entails the claim that freedom is incompatible with predestination to the good alone, won't do.

What, then, is McCabe's defense against the problem of evil? It comes in three parts.

The first is to narrow down the problem. In discussing the problem of evil, it is common to distinguish between "natural" and "moral" evil. McCabe simplifies that by labeling it the distinction between "evil suffered" and "evil done." And he says that evil suffered does not pose a "problem" of evil at all. That's because it is in the very nature of physical reality that evil suffered be strictly relative: evil is suffered by some creatures as the good of others or of the whole. To use McCabe's examples: it's bad for the lamb to be eaten and thus die, but it sure is good for the lion doing the eating; getting sick from an infection, which is bad for us, is positive fulfillment for the little pathogens. That's how it is with Nature, including evolution. To suppose that the material world is evil just for being like that, inferring therefrom that the creator of such a world is evil, is to agree with the Manichees that biological life, merely as such, is evil. McCabe says that the Manichean thesis would be "very difficult to show." I would go further: St. Augustine showed why it's untenable.

For McCabe, the problem is not with evil suffered but with evil done. He poses the question thus (FWR, p. 82; I've added the bullets):

If we can reconcile human wickedness with the goodness of God, then the explanation will certainly cover pain as well. If it is true, as I have maintained, that my free acts are due to God, what about my sins? If God has planned and arranged everything, then it is unfair to make me sin and then send me to hell. I am now going to offer the following propositions:
  • Although God acts in all my activity, free and unfree, he does not make me sin
  • He does not send me to hell, although he does send people to heaven
  • He could prevent me from sinning, and hence prevent me from going to hell, but does not always do so; yet this does not make him guilty.

The second stage of McCabe's defense is his argument for those propositions. Therein he relies on the Augustinian idea of evil as privatio boni, as an absence of what ought to be there. As Rev. Fabricius notes:

McCabe is...excellent on evil as a privatio boni – and at his best with the funny example. Some people, he writes, assume that when we have described evil as a negation we are saying that evil isn’t real. “But we (or I anyway) do not mean this at all. If I have a hole in my sock, the badness of this consists in the absence of wool where there ought to be some. This does not mean that the badness is illusory or unreal. If I jump out of a plane and discover that I have not got a parachute, it is of no comfort at all to be told that the absence of the parachute is not a real thing at all.”

So evil as privation is quite real. But God does not cause the "absence" in an evil action, which absence McCabe calls the "failure" of something to be there that, for the sake of the rational agent's humanity, ought to be there. He goes on:

Now my sins may involve a great deal of activity, but it is never the activity that makes us call them sins. What makes them sins is that this activity amounts to a failure in human living...a failure to behave in the way that human beings ought to behave. Now we can certainly say that God is acting in all the activity that is involved in sinning, but he is equally certainly not acting in the failure which constitutes the sin itself.

McCabe recognizes, of course, that some people charge God with "neglect" in permitting such failures when he could prevent them. McCabe's reply to that charge is the third main stage of his argument, and the part of his paper that most interests me.

After a page or so of explanation and argument, which it's important to read, he says:

When, therefore, I act in a less-than-human way, this is a failure on my part because acting in a human way is what I am for. But the fact that God has not made me act in a human way is not a failure on his part because this is not what he is for. It needs a kind of cosmic megalomania to suppose that God has the job of saving my soul and is to be given bad marks if he does not do that. Whatever he does for us, like creating us in the first place, is an act of gratuitous love, not something that is demanded of him.

Now such a view of God naturally elicits the further question what it could mean that God is good, if that does not mean that he acts as he ought by doing what he is for. McCabe's answer seems unassailable to me. But as this post is too long already, you'll have to read that for yourself.

As Fabricius points out:

...McCabe concludes modestly. He hopes to have “disentangled a puzzle,” but “When all is said and done, we are left with an irrational but strong feeling that if we were God we would have acted differently. Perhaps one of his reasons for acting as he did is to warn us not to try to make him in our own image.”

I believe that the modesty of such a result is actually a virtue. As I argued in my own paper The Problems of Evil, the best the philosopher or theologian can and should do with the problem of evil is to come up with a "defense": to show that the problem is not a logical one of inconsistency among the propositions held by the classical theist. That's a defense against the Mackies of the world. But a theodicy, which would mean showing why God is actually justified in permitting most of us to do evil and all of us to suffer it, is neither possible from any standpoint nor desirable from the standpoint of divine revelation. All we can do is glory in the person and action of Christ as the greatest conceivable manifestation of divine love. No doubt many of us, including yours truly, are inclined to say that, if they were God, they would have acted differently. Yet the very oddity of such a statement is evidence, as if we needed it, that we are out of our depth before God.
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