The Will To Be Well
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Then He is impotent. Is He able, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil? But skepticism, or at least agnosticism, should be allowed to cut the other way too. For if Hume is right and there is no defense of theism that could demonstrate consistency between the facts of evil and the power and goodness of God, it is also worth asking whether we are any better placed to formally demonstrate inconsistency between them. Maybe the provable absence of such a demonstration is all that theism needs.
So far as I can see, in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion Hume makes no categorical case to the effect that God and evil are formally inconsistent, and his Epicurean questions, though skeptical, should not be understood as establishing some sort of proof of atheism on their own. Far from it. It may even lend credibility to the proposition that we should do so, if only in a dialectical spirit and with a view to showing that the matter is unresolvable. So in this article, I want to put the case for starting where Hume starts, but to go a little further than he does, and to argue that the reasons for doing so are not just tactical, apologetic, and dialectical, but ought to be accepted by theists too—and for good theological reasons of their own.
At no point will I attempt to answer directly the question of how God could allow moral evil of any kind, let alone allow the extent of moral evil that there is, and that is because we cannot prove any answer to that question one way or the other. That is about as far as anyone, theist or atheist, can get with the problem of evil. And it is on that point that Julian of Norwich comes into the picture.
How far may we go along with Hume? Every evil is a problem of some kind, if only a practical problem of how to cope with it. But I do not agree with Hume that every evil is a problem about God. For some evils we can take in our stride, there being no cause for theological, philosophical, or even moral alarm therein, even though they offend our sentiments.
So we should start by taking the existence of such evils out of the debate. For example: I know that others including my wife have different convictions than I do about the matter, but I have personally never had a theological problem with lions eating antelopes, though it is impossible not to feel sorry for the panicking beasts as they flee their predators in such wonderfully graceful leaps and bounds. Lions lying down with lambs would of course be good news for lambs, but it would be terrible news for lions.
Eating lambs goes with being a lion; being a lamb-eating machine is more or less what a lion is. And more generally there seems to be a rule here, in that nature seems to require a level of raw indifference in matters of tooth and claw. If there is to be the variety and complexity of the natural world we know, including large carnivorous cats, the lambs, alas, are going to have to pay for it with their lives.
It would appear to be the same with inanimate physical processes, for they sometimes impact unhappily, even tragically, upon human affairs. In the mid-eighteenth century an earthquake in Portugal killed thirty thousand people, and Voltaire lost faith in God. More understandable would have been a loss of faith in human beings. It was they, after all, who had built Lisbon on a geological fault line and seemed willing to blame any one or thing but their ignorance for the destructive outcome. We today have far less excuse for continuing to build a San Francisco on the San Andreas fault line, and there seems to be something of a premodern and merely pagan superstition in supposing there would be a problem about God if some day soon San Francisco were to disappear for ever down an immense sinkhole, for we do know now that the prospects are high that in due course it will.
And were it asked more generally why a good God who had alternatives available to him would create a world in which earthquakes are bound to happen, it is unclear what answer would meet the case either way. It would seem that in asking that sort of question about earthquakes we are asking about sets of physical processes governed by laws that originate at a point in time in the order of 1 to the power of seconds after Big Bang.
For obviously if God makes a world in which there are going to be predictable outcomes, that will be because God wants us to be able to understand that world. But the world would become wholly incomprehensible to us if we could never know when physical laws were going to be suspended by God just to suit our particular preferences from time to time.
“When We Were Happy We Had Other Names”
There are those physical laws precisely so that, by getting to know them, we can learn to avoid building cities where earthquakes are bound to happen. More challenging for some is the problem of physical pain. Hume, again, has taken the lead here.
He seemed to think it obvious that a world in which no one suffers physical pain would be a better world than the one we have; and he asked why, if God is good, he should have chosen an alternative so obviously the worse of the two. Then he might not have been so easily convinced that bodily pain is altogether a bad thing, and he would hardly think that, overall, he was much better off for the want of it.
But then, as if acknowledging that some pain has its purpose in animal life, and conceding the general principle that some pain may be necessary, Hume presses the point: Why, he asks, so much pain? Why unbearable pain? Would not tolerable pain—or even some reduction in pleasure—serve the purpose of sending out the signals needed to warn of life-threatening courses of action? To which there is some sort of answer in the thought that pain cannot serve its purpose within the economy of human life if it occurs only at tolerable levels of mild discomfort.
For, when tolerable, pain loses its point. It fails to do its job if it is less than too much, and it would be still less effective if it were replaced by a simple reduction in one sort of pleasure relative to others. Of course, it does not follow from this that we should not try to reduce the levels of pain that visit us. Of course we should, but only so far as it is safe to do so, and a world in which analgesics were used to dull all pain to acceptable levels of discomfort would be a world in which, our bodies no longer serving with biological efficiency to warn us, we would always have to calculate how to avoid physically harmful forms of behavior.
Pain makes for an immensely more efficient warning device than sluggish brainpower with its capacities for self-deception. None of these forms of evil—if indeed that is what they are—have any tendency to pose a problem of the kind that Hume thinks we are all forced to face. You can guarantee safety for lambs only on condition of wimpishly vegetarian tigers and lions. You can have an earthquake-free cosmos only on condition that there are no reliable physical laws to govern it.
You can have a world free of physical pain only if it is also a world free of physical pleasure—in short, only if it is a world without nervous systems, which is to say, without bodies. Given the kind of world fit for bodies that we have, these pains are necessary evils where they are not necessary goods.
And so it is hard to see why the existence of them is to be regarded as providing rational evidence against God. Indeed, they seem just as plausibly to be evidence for a providential benevolence within creation. In any case, there is no need to bring God into the picture at this level, and it is no part of my argument that one should, since evolution will do as a perfectly good explanation for the emergence of the species we have, both lions and lambs, and for the fact that we animals all have diets disadvantageous to some other living species, and nervous systems that register pain.
But if, like Hume and some fundamentalist Christians of our own time, you insist on bringing God into it one way or the other, the evidence from the natural world points at least as strongly against a skeptical conclusion as in favor of it. Ours seems to be just the sort of natural world you might expect a good and wise God would bring about were God to bring about any world at all. Here, at least, we might reasonably think that you have to start in Princeton—that is, with where we actually are, even if we should not be there.
For here there really is a problem, and Hume gets half way to an answer. He manages to show that there is no way of formally proving even the de facto consistency, never mind the truth, of the three-way conjunction: God is all good, willing no evil; he is all powerful, hence able to prevent any evil; and yet there is evil.
A mere possible compatibility is not sufficient. You must prove these pure, unmixed and uncontrollable attributes from the present mixed and confused phenomena, and from these alone. For Hume there just is a problem of evil—anyone who is not a philosopher with an ax to grind can see that—and Philo challenges Cleanthes to make the case for God that, in face of the manifest evils of life, seems quite counterintuitive. If he cannot do that, then like it or not he will have no choice but to start with Philo from Princeton.
I am not sure this makes Hume an atheist. For certain it makes him a Pyrrhonian skeptic. Let us leave Hume there for the moment, because I now want to draw attention to a surprisingly different time, place, and style of reflection on the problem of evil—that of a fourteenth-century English theologian, Julian of Norwich. Unlike Hume she believes categorically in the existence of a good and all powerful God. That said, she shares one thing with him: she is quite baffled at the quandary that is caused by the quantity of sin there is and at the viciousness of some of it.
She confesses that she does not know why a good and almighty God should have created a world in which there is evil. You might find the parallel between this fourteenth-century woman recluse and the worldly Scottish enlightenment skeptic to be surprising and unlikely. But setting Hume and Julian alongside one another may, I hope, shed some light on a distinction that is often hard to grasp, and often misunderstood.
This is the distinction between a Pyrrhonian skeptic like Hume, for whom it cannot be known whether there is an answer to the problem of evil at all, and a theologian of the apophatic persuasion like Julian, for whom there is an answer, although it is unknowable. Both claim not to know, but their differences show that not-knowing can come in very different kinds. Julian herself, at the age of eight or nine, had survived the Black Death, which in the space of two years took the lives of one third of the population of England.
You cannot sweep away the evil with some gesture toward the compensating goodness of God. Sin, she says, is real and inexplicable: it may be the source of—or may consist in—all sorts of illusions about ourselves, our fellow human beings, indeed about God. It may be the reason we fail to relate to others and ourselves as we should. But there is no sort of unreality in the fact of our failing to relate properly. For Julian as for Hume, it is a question that demands that she hold on to the dilemma without eliminating one of its horns.
The omnipotent and unfailing love of God and the existence of sin are both undeniable. How, asks Julian, if we cannot deny either, can we assert both and hold the two in tension? There is sin. But why? It is worth noting why this question seems so important to Julian and so odd to many of the philosophers and theologians of our own time.
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It seems to them, as it did to Hume, too obvious to be worth debating that if you create a world of free agents, where freedom must at least allow for the choice between good and evil actions, then necessarily some evil choices are going to be made. A world of completely free agents who never choose evil actions is certainly describable, but by strict logical necessity even an almighty God could not create one, since for God to cause a human world to be sinless would be for God to rob human choices of their freedom, it being assumed that no action of mine can be free if anything other than I is the cause of it.
So a world of sinless human beings is describable but uncreatable. Such, for example, is the view of the Calvinist philosopher Alvin Plantinga. But Julian insists: God could indeed have created a world of human beings in which no one freely chooses to sin. It is because Julian thinks God is the cause of our free choices that there is for her a real question as to why God did not create a world of free agents who freely choose not to sin. As Julian sees it, God could have done so.
And so she tells us that. I saw that nothing stood in my way but sin. And I saw that this was so for us all generally, and I thought: if there had been no sin we should all have been clean and like to the Lord who made us. And thus I often wondered why by the great foresight and wisdom of God sin had not been prevented. For then, I thought all should have been well. Chasing Hornbills. Cold Hands, Warm Heart. Crapper Cycle Lanes. Cry from the Highest Mountain. First Contact. Fishing for Tigers.
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