Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Problem of Logic

So, yeah, I have been incredibly busy lately and not in the mood for blogging.

But, in keeping with the theme of this blog, as expressed in the title, I thought I'd write something that I've been thinking about lately.

It's the famous "problem of evil." It's a simple argument designed to prove God doesn't exist. Many people have famously left Christianity (and probably other religions) because this argument finally got to them. (A notable example would be Bart Ehrman, who recently wrote a book about the problem of evil.)

The argument is simple: if God is good, all-power, and all-knowing, then there should simply be no evil--he would be motivated by goodness and enabled by his power and knowledge to keep it out of existence. But there is clearly evil, so God doesn't exist.

Much debate has occurred throughout the ages over this question, with theists giving reasons why evil exists and atheists and others explaining why those reasons aren't good enough.

Not everyone takes that line of argument. See, for example, this debate between Bart Ehrman and N. T. Wright. Wright takes the position that you can't and shouldn't try to "solve" the problem of evil.

Let me explain why I more or less agree with this. Christian thought starts with God. God is the source of all goodness, beauty, and reason. Since these three have the same source, they are inseparable. That is, whatever is truly good is also beautiful and reasonable; whatever is truly beautiful is also good and, in some sense, reasonable; and whatever is truly reasonable is good and, in some sense, beautiful.

I can see why some people would not agree with this assumption. After all, isn't part of the beauty of humor that it is absurd, as opposed to reasonable? And can't a person be logical without being good? And can't something be good without necessarily being beautiful?

I won't go into all the details, but I think such examples fall short of true counterexamples. I think Christian thought begins with the idea that these things converge, since they all come from the Creator God, who makes chaos into order, creates beauty out of nothing, and calls it good. I think the humanity within us recognizes there must be some connection. If being reasonable isn't ultimately good, why be reasonable? If being good isn't ultimately beautiful, why be good? And if beauty isn't ultimately reasonable or good, then why should we find it beautiful after all?

With this foundation, we ask, "Where does evil come from?" and we realize that there cannot be an answer. If there were, then the answer would explain how it is reasonable for evil to exist. But if it were truly reasonable for evil to exist, then it would also be good for evil to exist. This cannot be the case.

Does this disprove the premise, that beauty, goodness, and reason have their source in one God? Actually, no, it does not. For one thing, the math nerd in me points out that there are plenty of such things as incompleteness theorems (for which Kurt Gödel, pictured on the left, is most famous) that show things like how you can't have a logical system in which every question has an answer. So just because the question, "Why does evil exist?" doesn't have an answer, it doesn't follow that we have taken the wrong approach to thinking.

(Super-math-nerdyness alert: I might bring up as an example that modern set theory leads to the inevitable conclusion that the continuum hypothesis can neither be proved nor disproved. But we don't throw out the basic axioms of set theory; it's still basically the right way of looking at most mathematical problems. We just have to acknowledge our limitations.)

More importantly, what are the alternatives? As I understand it, certain other philosophies simply drive a wedge between reason, beauty, and goodness--either one from the other two, or all three from each other. That's why you get in existentialism, for instance, this idea of the "hero of the absurd," who goes beyond reason toward that which is truly good. This can sound glorious, but in the end it is a tragedy--a world where goodness does not make sense and where reason is not good is not a world that invites human flourishing. We may as well throw up our hands and stop trying.

Do we need to accept the alternatives? What would be the consequences of accepting a manner of thinking in which reason, beauty, and goodness all converged--and one in which the question, "Why does evil exist?" has no answer?

First, we wouldn't accept answers as reasonable unless they were also good and beautiful--this would lead to less stern pragmatism and more creative thought about problems our society faces. Conversely, we wouldn't accept ideas as good and beautiful unless they also had a ring of reasonableness in them--this would curb our tendency toward hopeless romanticism. Such thinking could lead to true human flourishing.

And instead of answering the question, "Why does evil exist?" with reasons, we would answer it with actions. I mean, the obvious answer to the question is, and always has been, "Well, it shouldn't!" Stoic acceptance of evil seems wise at first, but I think it is an unnecessarily grim philosophy. What we need instead is a view of evil as real, powerful, and wrong--wrong because it is bad, wrong because it is ugly, and wrong because it is irrational. With this triple opposition to evil, how much more would we be able to actually combat it with our actions?

There's no room in one blog post to iron out all the details, but I'm glad just to be breaking this dry spell I've been having. This is a perpetually interesting topic to me, and I'm sure I'll change my thinking on it as I learn more.

1 comment:

  1. A wonderful essay, my friend. I'm not sure whether I'm an ex-conservative, or just a compassionate conservative who has come to realize, rather late, that the whole Religious Right thing has been a failure. I'm going to follow you. Please keep writing.


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