Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Epicurious about Suffering?

Recently, over at Barque of Peter, an anonymous commenter posted in the third Open Forum a question about why there is suffering if God is all good and all powerful. In a nutshell, he was troubled by a quote that has gotten a lot of use lately by the "New Atheists", and is attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus:
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 whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?
I've seen this riddle more than a few times in the past couple of years, and had always meant to post an article in response to it. Since I had to give a rather in depth response to the seeker on my other blog, I figured I'd re-post it here, and perhaps help others who find Epicurus' Riddle unsolvable.

The good news is, there are a couple of good and short answers to the questions posed by Epicurus. The bad news is, people tend to find short answers unsatisfying, while on the other hand, they find the long, in depth answers boring. So, I'll attempt to provide you, dear reader, with both--the short answers first, and a more in depth elaboration after.

My first reply is that Epicurus' argument is actually nothing more than sophistry. (Sophistry: a deliberately invalid argument displaying ingenuity in reasoning in the hope of deceiving someone.) That is, the argument is ingeniously phrased as to appear to cover all the bases, but it makes a deceptive move in plainly ignoring various other alternatives. It is equally deceptive in that, if it does indeed originate from Epicurus, he himself believed in gods. Hence, to formulate an argument against one's own beliefs is either for the purpose of dialogue or deception. The trilemmic formulation of the riddle doesn't tend to allow for dialogue--especially as it is used today by the "New Atheists" such as Richard Dawkins. As such, I tend to view it as sophistry.

Of course, simply saying the argument is sophistry isn't quite effective enough to reassure those who face it that it is nothing about which to worry. So we'll move on to my second short answer, and build from there.

As I mentioned, despite the ingenious formulation of Epicurus' argument, in that it appears to cover all the angles, there are many assumptions being made throughout that should themselves be questioned. St. Augustine, the great early Christian theologian, addressed the problem of suffering point blank when he wrote, "Almighty God would not permit evil to exist in his works, unless he were so almighty and so good to produce good even from evil" (Enchiridion 11).

That, in a nutshell, is the Catholic Church's response to the problem of evil. But let's take a moment to crack that nut, shall we?

The problem with our culture and society today is that as a whole we seem to suffer from collective Attention Deficit Disorder. We want our deepest questions answered before the popcorn stops popping in the microwave. But as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, in response to why a loving and omnipotent God would permit evil,
To this question, as pressing as it is unavoidable and as painful as it is mysterious, no quick answer will suffice. Only Christian faith as a whole constitutes the answer to this question: the goodness of creation, the drama of sin and the patient love of God who comes to meet man by his covenants, the redemptive Incarnation of his Son, his gift of the Spirit, his gathering of the Church, the power of the sacraments and his call to a blessed life to which free creatures are invited to consent in advance, but from which, by a terrible mystery, they can also turn away in advance. There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil. (#309, emphasis in original)
For some reason, people today take such an answer as being evasive. This is another sophistry, masking the individual person's laziness in actually exploring just what the message of Christianity is.

In paragraph 324, the Catechism sums up by referring to St. Augustine's teaching that while we cannot fully understand why God allows evil, we can in faith be assured that He only does so to bring about a greater good.

So saying leads us to another element that Epicurus' riddle fails to address. He covers God being all-powerful and God being loving, but he fails to mention God's omniscience, His wisdom, nor any other aspect of His infinity.

The fact is, an all-powerful and good God would indeed bring about an end to evil. The ultimate sophistry in Epicurus' riddle is assuming that he knows better than the all-knowing God how to be rid of evil. In fact, Epicurus, and all who repeat his riddle, assume that he, and they, know better than God what actually is evil.

Of course, the fatal error in their questioning lies here: If the existence of evil demonstrates the non-existence of God, then the non-existence of God means that the world is simply the result of random chance, without design or intelligible order. The metaphysical categories of "good" and "evil" have no meaning in such a randomly constructed and meaningless universe--it simply is what it is. Now, if the universe simply is what it is, and good and evil have no objective criteria defining them, then it is impossible to determine what Good and Evil are, or even if they are. As such, "Evil" can not be proffered as an argument against the existence of God, because evil itself ceases to exist.

In other words, if there is something identifiable as "evil", that is, a deprivation of some good, then there must be an order, a meaning, a standard defining that the world ought to be a particular way. That is to say, if we can determine that the world is wrong, then we are at the same time saying there is a design to which the world should adhere. Design, of course, implies a Designer, i.e., God.

As such, the only way for Epicurus' riddle to be internally consistent would be to redefine "evil" as "What I happen to not like," which, I suppose, according to Epicurean philosophy, might very well be how Epicurus might define "evil."

But then his argument runs thus:
"If God is willing to prevent things from happening which I don't particularly like, but not able, then He is not omnipotent.
Is He able but not willing [to prevent things that I don't like]? Then He is malevolent.
Is He both able and willing [to prevent things I don't happen to like]? Then whence comes that which I don't happen to like?
If He is neither able nor willing, then why call Him 'the Great Vending Machine in the Sky'?"
Do we see what happens? If there is no objective standard of good or evil (which is the logical consequence of there being no God), then "evil" is simply what irritates me. Now, a great many things irritate me. My job irritates me because I have to do things that I don't want to, and can't do things that I do want to. So God should eliminate my job, because it is evil to me. Of course, no job means no paycheque, which means no food or clothes or housing. So, which should God eliminate next? The need for money for food, clothes, and shelter? Or the need for food, clothes, and shelter? How far do we take it? If we carry this line of thinking--that God should eliminate every evil--to its logical conclusion, pretty soon He will be eliminating everything, because it somehow irritates someone, or He will eliminate everyone, because we're irritating each other or ourselves. If there is no objective standard for good and evil, ultimately, nothing has a right to exist.

Furthermore, without any objective standard of evil beyond that which happens to displease us, expecting God to simply obliterate that which displeases us according to our whim and fancy, on the grounds that God is "all powerful" and "loving" simply shows Epicurus' riddle to be the sophistry that it is. Because God isn't waiting on our every beck and call to answer our demands for perfect happiness in the way we want it, when, how, and on the terms which we want it, He therefore must not exist. The ultimate sophistry of Epicurus' riddle is that he wants to have it both ways: For the argument to work, there needs to be Evil, because it apparently demonstrates that there is no God--but if there is no God, then "Evil" itself has no meaning.

I could continue to explore further reasons that bringing the riddle to its logical conclusions really rather backfires on the person making the argument, but I think you get the point.

So, whence comes evil? Ironically, it stems from God's Love, and His desire to love and be loved. He created the world and populated it full of rational beings like you and me, so that we could love Him and He us. But love requires a free choice, and so He gave us that choice, to love Him, the source of all goodness, or to reject Him and choose lesser goods instead. Evil, which is a deprivation of some good, results when a good is chosen in a disordered fashion. When, through sin, we choose not to love God, we become disordered in our desires, and this causes evil and suffering, both for ourselves, and for others, and to the world as a whole.

So, can God just "stop" the evil? Yes, but not without eliminating our freedom of choice. If He did so, He would negate the sole purpose of our creation. Since we were created to be free, eliminating our freedom would itself be evil--a deprivation of a good which we possess, or should possess, by our nature. In other words, in order to eliminate evil, God would have to commit a greater evil. As the old adage goes, two wrongs don't make a right.

So then, we're back to St. Augustine. God only permits evil because He's powerful enough to turn it into a greater Good. Our free ability to sin is the exact same things as the good of our free ability to love. And if we're willing to make that choice, then all the other evil, all the other suffering, all the other things we don't particularly happen to like, can actually become vehicles for His Grace to pour out greater good.

We see this analogically in nature. The very notion of "exercise" bears this out. We want to "feel the burn" because "no pain, no gain." The often uncomfortable and sometimes painful exertion of our muscles leads to greater fitness, health, and strength.

Similarly, the suffocating struggle of the butterfly to emerge from the cocoon is precisely the necessary exercise it needs to be able to fly. The most fertile ground results from forest fires. Or, as Jesus Christ Himself said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).

Nowhere is this better realised than in Jesus Himself. The Greatest Good entered the world, and encountered Evil head on. It was precisely through His Suffering that He conquered Evil--not to make it something we never experience, but rather to make our experience of evil something that can be grace-filled, that when we follow Him, and suffer with and through Him, that suffering will bring about greater good in our life, and in the lives of others (see Colossians 1:24).

Of course, the same choice that brought about evil is ours today. Do we choose the lesser good to avoid the suffering, or do we go through the suffering with faith, knowing that God will bring out of it something that we can't even imagine? (c.f. Ephesians 3:20-21.)

"We are well aware that God works with those who love him, those who have been called in accordance with his purpose, and turns everything to their good" (Romans 8:28, NJB).

By way of further reading, Robert Colquhoun over at Love Undefiled addresses this issue as well as provides some rational arguments in favour of God's existence in an article he wrote in the wake of the Asian Tsunami of Christmas 2004.

God bless
Gregory

16 comments:

Kane Augustus said...

The problem with reducing Epicurus's questions to mere sophistry, and then offering up your own answer (in agreement with Catholicism, of course) is that you commit the same error you accuse Epicurus of: sophistry.

Why should I believe anything either you, the Catholic church, or Epicurus says? Why should I even take your answer seriously if you're content to dismiss so easily Epicurus's valid bafflements with the nature of reality? And all under the guise of some predictable apologetic parsing based not on your own personal experience of Epicurus's dilemma, but on the pre-formulated answer of the Catholic church?

I understand that the way I've asked that may seem rude to you, but I assure you I'm not intending any rudeness. I am, however, fighting against your use of clichéd apologetics as an answer to what you consider 'sophistry'. Battling an apparent sophistry with an equally apparent cliché advances nothing.

I think you have, on the other hand, given a lot of emotional support to people who believe like you. And that, I think, is where the New Atheists have gone wrong in their use of Epicurus's dilemma: they have coddled the emotions of people who already assume the same things they do by fronting an ancient question that resonates with their present concerns.

Taken within the context of your beliefs, you have a ready-made answer to Epicurus. His questions are still valid, in any case. Why? Because not everybody believes what you do. Therefore Epicurus's dilemma is not a sophistry.

Taken within the context of atheism, Epicurus's dilemma is a ready-made set of questions that get people to think through their problems with the existence of god and the presence of suffering. Therefore Epicurus's dilemma is not a sophistry.

Reducing Epicurus's dilemma to a sophistry is to blithely ignore the valid concerns of millions upon millions of people. Once you've dismissed a set of questions that give a voice, a frame of reference to their experience with suffering and the question of god, aren't you committing a brazen sophistry yourself? Why would you want to tailor your answers to the problem of suffering in such a way that it depersonalizes the very real, very present human condition in relation to god and suffering? That, my friend, is, according to your definition of 'sophistry', in fact, a willing and purposeful sophistry.

Gregory said...

First of all, I "reduced" Epicurus' quotation to sophistry, because, as far as I can tell, for the reasons I carefully detailed, it is.

The fact that it resonates with people's experience does not lessen its sophistry, but reinforces its "ingenious" quality. That is, it's effective because it does seem so accurate, so true. It's deceiving, because in it's appearing complete and true, it is in fact ignoring many possibilities other than those it frames, as I again elucidated in my original post.

The fact is, your entire comment fails to actually address my comments and arguments, simply dismissing them as "clichéd". It seems to me that your entire comment commits the very same thing of which you accuse me (and which I deny that I did at all).

Of course, we can play the "I'm not a Sophist, you are!" game 'til the cows come home, but that will get us nowhere.

The point of my article, abstract or not, is that if a person chooses not to believe in God, that choice cannot rationally be built upon the "problem" of evil. Your complaint that my article is abstract seems somewhat odd to me. It seems obvious to me that a person in pain isn't going to want an argument, but comfort. I cannot offer much comfort and compassion through the blogging medium. If my words to happen to comfort someone, then that is an added bonus.

On the other hand, a person in pain isn't overly liable, in my experience, to forward an argument, either. All argumentation is abstracted. And if we are to ponder an argument, we ideally must be removed enough from a situation that we can be sober and rational enough to sort through the issues.

This is a rather different thing than comforting the afflicted, and so far as I know, I was not writing to someone in the throes of illness when I wrote this at Barque of Peter.

Furthermore, I find it ironic that you condemn my article for, on the one hand, not taking Epicurus' article seriously, so as to "simply" dismiss it as sophistry, and then, on the other hand, you find fault with it, because I take Epicurus' sophistry so seriously, that I appeal to a much greater source of wisdom than my own limited experience, in order to provide what I feel is a better explanation of the problem of suffering. Which is it?

For myself, my personal experience of suffering has been rather limited, living as I do in a rather prosperous nation. My greatest hardships in life have been Mono, unemployment, and having a great number of people in my life dislike me for some reason or other. Boo-hoo!

I've never been life-threateningly ill or in chronic pain. I've never been homeless or starving. I've never been the victim of a natural disaster or of warfare. My sufferings are small, and hardly worth mentioning, it seems.

On the other hand, I defer to the wisdom of an Institution whose members have weathered storms, violence, disasters, plagues, persecution, and all manner of various suffering. And it is those who suffered the most who often had the most intense perspectives on suffering.

Finally, I wonder whether you'd like to revisit the article and offer an actual argument, instead of just calling my writings "clichés". Because a cliché is simply an idea that is often repeated. Criticising my argument by basically saying, "That's what everybody always says" does not in any way make "what everybody always says" less true. Thus, by criticising the article as cliché, you're merely appealing to the emotions of those who think some new and novel understanding is obviously better because it's original. If no sophistry has been committed up until this point, that, my friend, certainly is one.

Gregory said...

For the record, here is the original question as posted at Barque of Peter:

"Anonymous said...

“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 whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?”

The words of Epicurus ring still in my mind. My question is: how does the Catholic Church counter this?

Thanks!"

As such, I formulated my answer in such a way as to provide the Catholic Church's response to the question of suffering and the existence of God--precisely because that is what I was asked to do! Criticising me, then, for providing the Catholic Church's response, rather than my own personal ideas, is to criticise me for doing precisely what I was asked to do.

Kane Augustus said...

Gregory,

You wanted me to argue specifically against your article, which I'm happy to do. So let's start with the following.

First, both your Anonymous reader/commenter and yourself have quoted David Hume's formulation of Epicurus's riddle on the problem of evil. That's not a criticism, just a tid-bit of historical information. A closer rendition of what Epicurus actually stated can be found in the book 2000 Years of Disbelief. It reads like this:

"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?"

Moving on, you stated that, “...to formulate an argument against one's own beliefs is either for the purpose of dialogue or deception. The trilemmic formulation of the riddle doesn't tend to allow for dialogue...”

By this I'm assuming you mean that because Epicurus's riddle proposes three alternate clauses for his concerns, he must not be trying to dialogue. You then conclude that, like the New Atheists, Epicurus must be trying to deceive; therefore sophistry. You're free to conclude that, if you're convinced by your assertion.

I would question you on your conclusion of Epicurus's supposed sophistry, however. It would seem to me that, due to the difficult nature of his questions, and the cognitive dissonance those questions stir in the minds of believers, Epicurus was not trying to deceive. In fact, it would seem that he is applying the Socratic method (i.e., asking a series of questions designed to spur people on to critical thinking about their established beliefs). In doing so, he was forcing people to examine their presuppositions about God (notice the singular; it will be important in a moment) as they juxtapose with the reality of suffering.

Aside from the insecurity perhaps you and others may feel at having to watch your beliefs clash with difficult realities, is there a moral difficulty with asking questions that point out the weaknesses in the Christian conception of God? Christians generally do the same thing with non-Christians, so why should Epicurus's questions be reduced to the status of sophistry when they threaten the sanctity of traditional Christian theology? It seems to me that you're proffering a double-standard in your article, and that is simply not acceptable.

You also stated that, “It is equally deceptive in that, if it does indeed originate from Epicurus, he himself believed in gods.” You are correct that Epicurus did believe in gods. He was also an atomist after the fashion of Democritus (who is arguably the first known atheist). Epicurus also asserted that any pronouncements about the gods other than that they are “immortal and blessed” are impious.

Kane Augustus said...

Continued...

Now, given that Epicurus was born into a newly Hellenistic culture established by Alexander the Great, just after his death in 323 BC, it is not unreasonable to assume that Epicurus was aware of the monotheism of Hebrew culture. This is a reasonable assumption since Epicurus was arguing against the Greek descriptions of Judaism's monotheistic deity (e.g., omnipotence). Review the riddle: Epicurus does not refer to 'the gods'. He refers in the singular to “God”. So your charge that he was being deceitful by believing in gods while arguing against his beliefs is flat-out wrong. He was not being deceitful by arguing against a monotheistic conception of an all-powerful deity while holding on to poly-theistic beliefs. He was being consistent to his beliefs in the multiple limited deities of Greek culture, and his personal assertion that the gods should not be described any further than to say “immortal and blessed”. Hence your charge of sophistry is further debunked by reasonable historical inferences.

This historical inference is also backed by the Encyclopaedia Judaica, which states, “Epicurus anticipated Judaism's denial of astral divinity and rule.” Epicurus was not only aware of Judaism, but also familiar enough with it that he accurately and correctly 'anticipated' certain doctrines that Judaism would not tolerate. So saying, it is reasonable to suggest that Epicurus was applying the Socratic method against the concept of monotheism, not his own poly-theistic assumptions.

You noted Augustine as saying, “St. Augustine, the great early Christian theologian, addressed the problem of suffering point blank when he wrote, 'Almighty God would not permit evil to exist in his works, unless he were so almighty and so good to produce good even from evil' (Enchiridion 11).”

That's all well-and-fine for those who claim the subjective experience that God does indeed work such beneficial wonders from evil. However, it really doesn't bear out in reality. Demonstrate, if you will, that this is in fact what God does. Most people brave moral evils and natural disasters by grieving and moving on; they deliberately do something about it themselves. But the religious routinely import such personal triumphs over suffering into their ideological schemes, claiming that “God did it.” In reality, however, the people who triumph over suffering and evil do so generally of their own resources, willingness, and initiative. So the most that could legitimately said about this is that God gave people brains, and people are using them. But so what? How does that solve the problem of evil? Answer: it doesn't. It does, however, give impetus to think on Epicurus's trilemmic formulation as a critical reflection on reality.

Kane Augustus said...

Continued...

More, religious folk attribute the catharsis after a long process of suffering to God's direct intervention: “I can really feel God working things out for the better in me now that I've come to grips with his death,” or “I've been in so much pain for so long now that I'm not sure if I'm allowed to feel good. But praise be to God that he takes my pain and redeems it for his purposes” (actual quotes from people I knew, but have now passed-on).

Such religious connotative language does serve a useful purpose: it comforts people who subscribe to the same religious ideologies. In itself, however, it is a non-answer to the problem of suffering. In light of Epicurus's dilemma, religious bromides meant to comfort come into direct conflict with the continuing reality of suffering. This is cognitive dissonance, and it is jarring for people when they realise the inconsistency of their beliefs in the face of evil in reality. This is not to say that dissonant concepts cannot be validly held in a single mind; they can be (Schrödinger's Cat, for example). However, rather than being any form of actual answer or assurance, it highlights the agnostic nature of the situation. People simply don't know why God doesn't stop evil when, as the supreme potentate of the universe, he bloody-well could!

Which brings us to the fantastically unhelpful category of “free-will”, itself a redundant term but part of the philosophical parcel nonetheless. The argument from free-will, as I'm sure you know, is basically that people are free to choose between good and evil. Good is that which conforms to God's character and allegedly stated mandates in scripture (and in Catholicism, Tradition, too). Accordingly, evil is that which purposes itself against God's character and allegedly stated mandates in scripture (and Tradition, too, for the Catholics). For God to eliminate the option of evil, God would not be expressing the fullness of his love, which consists, in part, in the freely-willed relationship between God and people. God would, in effect, be over-riding people's innate freedom, and reducing them to automatons were he to simply end evil.

The difficulty with the free-will argument, I find, is that it amounts to a non-answer. Yes, we have free-will. Yes, God allows people to do evil. But certain questions arise from these admissions. Namely, if we are intelligent, freely-willing creatures, why did God create us without the mental affinity to will against the choice for evil in the first place? And behind that question is the question of why God would even bother to create the opportunity for people to choose evil, if God refuses to live with the consequences of it (i.e., the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the resultant human sinfulness that God cannot abide)?

More, the implication from free-will defenders is that God 'allows' evil. If this is the case, then the notion of an allowance for evil as ordained by God – as surely God's 'allowing' evil would suggest – makes God culpable. In a court of law such an 'allowance' would be interpreted as aiding and abetting a crime. God's allowance for evil makes God an accomplice, an accessory to the evil perpetrated. However, the smart apologete would note that God intervenes to thwart evil, too. Very well, then why does he not intervene to stop all evils? The fact that he doesn't speaks quite loudly to his rigid inconsistency, and stoical regard for human suffering.

Kane Augustus said...

Continued...

So, in the end, with these questions in mind, the typical theologian responds that “God's ways are not our ways. His ways are higher than our ways. It is a 'mystery' why God allows suffering.” To that, I point you to Bart D. Ehrman whose non-devotional, historical approach to such questions can be found in God's Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question – Why We Suffer. On the matter of the free-will defense to the problem of evil, Ehrman states,

“At the end of the day, one would have to say that the answer is a mystery. We don't know why free will works so well in heaven but not on earth. We don't know why God doesn't provide the intelligence we need to exercise free will. We don't know why he sometimes contravenes the free exercise of the will and sometimes not. And this presents a problem, because if in the end the question is resolved by saying that the answer is a mystery, then it is no longer an answer. It is an admission that there is no answer.” (p. 13)

Since you have stated in your article that God could indeed stop evil “but not without eliminating our freedom of choice”, you are left with proving a) your assumption that the elimination of evil would destroy free-choice, and b) that the free-will/mystery problem isn't just a theological emollient; that is, a non-answer.

I have concentrated on the above aspects of your article to the exclusion of some others because these are the items I found particularly loose in your treatment of the problem of evil, and the riddle of Epicurus. I would be quite happy to go after a few more, if you're open to a thorough-going debate on the issue. And thank you for posting the original question from Barque of Peter. We can debate also, if you wish, on the difficulties of institutionalized answers verses freely-reasoned answers at some point in the future, too. That is, if you're agreeable to a resolution the likes of which would challenge your Catholic context.

I look forward to your rebuttal.

Your friend,
Kane Augustus

Gregory said...

Moving on, ... he was forcing people to examine their presuppositions about God (notice the singular; it will be important in a moment) as they juxtapose with the reality of suffering.

I suppose my perception of the sophistry in Epicurus' riddle comes more from its use by modern atheists, and perhaps not so much by Epicurus himself. However, as I carefully stated above, the main point of sophistry that I find is in the fact that the riddle itself appears to demonstrate the "cognitive dissonance" you mention, but in actual fact, fails to account for other alternatives, such as the one proposed by St. Augustine in my original article.

Aside from the insecurity...is there a moral difficulty with asking questions that point out the weaknesses in the Christian conception of God?

I personally feel no such insecurity, because I do not at all find my beliefs clashing with difficult realities. My beliefs rather acknowledge that reality is indeed difficult. That's a very different thing than saying there's a weakness in the Christian conception of God. The weakness, so far as I can tell, is with Epicurus' and the New Atheists' conception of the Christian conception of God. Epicurus, perhaps, is little to be blamed here, since he lived some three and a half centuries before Christ (though he did, apparently, model this riddle off of the Jewish conception of God), but the current purporters of the argument have the benefit of 2000 years of Christian theology to examine in order to find the clear and coherent teachings about God on this issue. If they fail to do so, and still put forth an inadequate argument against their perception of the Christian concept of God, then their argument is indeed sophistry, isn't it?

Christians generally do the same thing with non-Christians, so why should Epicurus's questions be reduced to the status of sophistry when they threaten the sanctity of traditional Christian theology?

Once again, I won't speak for all Christians, but I will attempt to reason with a non-Christian regarding his beliefs to show whether or not they lead to truth or falsehood. I'm not reducing the riddle to sophistry on that ground (sometimes I wonder if you read the original article). Futhermore, I again deny that Epicurus' riddle actually threatens Christian theology. It only appears to, and troubles people who haven't taken the time, or had the time to take, to puzzle deeply through these issues. But then, that is why there is such a thing as Christian theology, and Christian theologians--that they can do the puzzling for those of us who are somehow inhibited from doing so for ourselves.

It seems to me that you're proffering a double-standard in your article, and that is simply not acceptable.

I'm not entirely sure where I've done so. Perhaps you can demonstrate it, with quotations, say?

Gregory said...

... Epicurus also asserted that any pronouncements about the gods other than that they are "immortal and blessed" are impious.

Is it me, then, or does this not reveal Epicurus' riddle to be even more of a sophistry? If he poses a riddle that begs a response from us to say something about God that goes beyond that they are "immortal and blessed", and we do attempt to answer it, he then simply dismisses our answer as "impious". If we refrain from answering, in order to be "pious", then we are forced to live with the "cognitive dissonance" you describe, or to abandon our theism. In other words, we're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't. How then is this not sophistry?

Now, .... So your charge that he was being deceitful by believing in gods while arguing against his beliefs is flat-out wrong.

Is it? His gods could even less be considered omnipotent, thus begging the final question of his riddle (at least in David Hume's formulation), "Why call them gods?"

He was not being deceitful ... Hence your charge of sophistry is further debunked by reasonable historical inferences.

And I'm willing to abandon the charge that Epicurus was a sophist (at least in this regard). I'm less inclined to be so generous towards the modern atheists who continue to proffer this riddle. Besides, Epicurus' polytheistic beliefs were only one part of why I considered the argument sophistry. And not even a primary part. I could easily edit that entire sentence out of the post without changing the meaning one bit.

...Epicurus was applying the Socratic method against the concept of monotheism, not his own poly-theistic assumptions.

Fine. I've conceded this point. I'll even edit my article to reflect that concession.

You noted Augustine... However, it really doesn't bear out in reality. Demonstrate, if you will, that this is in fact what God does.

I could multiply examples, both biblical and "real world". I will suffice with the example of only two, for now--Fr. Patrick Martin, a blind priest who, precisely because of his blindness, has been able to impact the lives of many all over the world in a way he would not have been able to, otherwise. The other is Sr. Carmelina Tarantino of the Cross, a woman who spent some twenty-three years at Riverdale Hospital in Toronto suffering from debilitating cancer, yet meeting with, praying for, and offering advice to many who would come to see her or phone her at the hospital--often working miracles on their behalf. Through the suffering in her life, God restored the faith of thousands.

Most people brave moral evils...generally of their own resources, willingness, and initiative.

Research has indicated that there is a definite link to the ability of people with faith to triumph over suffering and evil, versus those without such faith.

Gregory said...

So the most that could legitimately said about this is that God gave people brains, and people are using them. But so what? How does that solve the problem of evil? Answer: it doesn't.

Perhaps not. However, I don't remember that being my whole answer to the question. Moreover, your whole above argument has been rather a non sequitur since it doesn't actually address what I (or, I think, St. Augustine) meant by that answer. Now, of course, I can forgive you that, seeing that the Protestant framework you used to operate under doesn't have a real parallel theology of redemptive suffering--and your current "soft atheism" certainly doesn't. One of the very unique, albeit biblical, doctrines of Catholicism is not simply that God makes us able to triumph in adversity, but rather that the very adversity itself can be, or at least, become a good thing. Or rather, our choice to "offer it up" in union with Christ's own suffering can unlock, so to speak, God's grace. And that grace is seldom for the immediate benefit of the one offering his sufferings, but, like the case of Sr. Carmelina, those graces pour out on manifold others, often in unimaginable ways. Our own suffering thus takes on redemptive value, as St. Paul himself tells us in Colossians 1:24, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church."

It does, however, give impetus to think on Epicurus's trilemmic formulation as a critical reflection on reality.

If we understand St. Augustine's quote, and my line of thought, in the rather prosaic sense that you've outlined above, sure. If we want to discount "subjective experience" like miracles and research, in favour of "reality" (which, above, simply amounted to your own thoughts on how reality works without any sort of demonstration of that fact). The fact is, even if all I meant was that God gave us brains and resilience to learn and grow and triumph in our adversities (whereas the opposite, that in our contentments we become fat and lazy and lethargic, is demonstrably true), it still remains that the suffering in our life does still serve a purpose that tends toward our good. And yet, I meant so much more besides.

...Such religious connotative language does serve a useful purpose: it comforts people who subscribe to the same religious ideologies. In itself, however, it is a non-answer to the problem of suffering.

I am not sure such answers are meant to be an answer to the entirety of the problem of suffering. Merely an answer to the problem of their suffering.

In light of Epicurus's dilemma, ...it is jarring for people when they realise the inconsistency of their beliefs in the face of evil in reality.

I am honestly not sure what you mean. What is the "problem of suffering" you wish these comments to address?

... People simply don't know why God doesn't stop evil when, as the supreme potentate of the universe, he bloody-well could!

Indeed, ultimately, we don't know exactly why God permits suffering to continue, or evil to continue (and please, try to note that I don't think those two terms are synonymous--suffering can be good. Evil, by definition, cannot). We have theories, and ideas, and experiences. In some cases, we have revealed tidbits. However, this does nothing to negate the ultimate points of my article: God can use such suffering for our good, if we choose to let Him, and the existence of evil does not negate the existence of God, whatever His motives are for letting it continue for now.

Gregory said...

Which brings us to the fantastically unhelpful category of “free-will”, itself a redundant term but part of the philosophical parcel nonetheless.

I'm pretty sure I never actually used the term, myself. I mentioned freedom of choice, but that's hardly redundant. Moreover, I'm not sure what is, in fact, redundant about the term "free will", as opposed to an unfree will.

The argument from free-will,... God would, in effect, be over-riding people's innate freedom, and reducing them to automatons were he to simply end evil.

I more or less covered that in my article. Your belabouring the point here makes me again wonder if you actually read the article...

The difficulty with the free-will argument, ....

He didn't. "In the first place", He created us (i.e., Adam and Eve) with the necessary gift of grace, or integrity, to balance the competing desires of the senses, the will, and the intellect. However, it was precisely this grace which Adam and Eve lost by their disobedience (the underlying cause of which itself was a desire to avoid suffering and sacrifice, according to many scholars--see, for example and references, Scott Hahn, "First Comes love").

Due to the loss of this Original Grace, we all are conceived in a state lacking the integrity of our intellect, will, and sensual appetites. This leads to competing desires--and when desires for lesser goods win out in a way that contradicts our ultimate good, it causes further suffering and evil.

And behind that question ...

I'm not sure what you mean by God living with the consequences. We are the ones who live with the consequences of our choices. God, on the other hand, waits to bestow the graces needed to seek Him and be free of those sinful desires. As such, your question makes no sense to me. If there was no choice, there would be no choice--and we're thus back to the automaton issue.

Gregory said...

...The fact that he doesn't speaks quite loudly to his rigid inconsistency, and stoical regard for human suffering.

I disagree that God does not at least present the offer of intervening in every case of suffering. The only difference from case to case is what He offers to do for the sufferer, and whether they accept His offer. Since, again, not all suffering is bad, God may simply be presenting the offer to help a person endure it. On the other hand, since not all people have faith in God, they may simply reject the option of turning to Him in their suffering. In light of this, and the fact that He Himself became a victim of the suffering, I'm not sure how He is then still guilty. Furthermore, if it is true that He does indeed bring a greater good out of suffering, then He is not so much the perpetrator of a crime, as He is the doctor with the scalpel. Finally, since our ultimate destiny is not this valley of tears, the ultimate greater good achieved through suffering, if we let it--and at the same time the ultimate eradication of evil--is that Life in the world to come. Without this eternal perspective, suffering ultimately does become meaningless. And it is precisely this perspective that is forgotten or ignored in the pursuit of lesser, immediate goods which themselves only lead to further suffering and evil.

You will, no doubt, reply that "Heaven" is an unknowable reality or some such thing, and therefore is another non-answer to the problem of suffering, yadayadayada. But it seems disingenuous to simply deny our answers any validity simply because you happen to disagree with them. The meaning and reason behind suffering for a person who limits himself to that which he can see, touch, smell, taste, and hear will obviously elude him--since all meaning eludes such a person.

But the fact is, at that point one has utterly strayed beyond the question at hand, namely, if God exists, why is there suffering? If we simply deny all possible answers that assume that God exists, including the one that says that we are destined for union with Him, that is simply changing the goalposts.

So, in the end, with these questions in mind, the typical theologian responds that "God's ways are not our ways. His ways are higher than our ways. It is a 'mystery' why God allows suffering."

I must confess my absolute comfort with arriving at such a conclusion in the end. If God is indeed omnipotent and omniscient, etc. shall we be surprised that we won't ever fully figure Him out? If there was no mystery, it would be a sure and definite sign that He didn't exist.

Gregory said...

To that...Ehrman..."blahblahblah"...

All I have to say about Mr. Ehrman is that he hasn't read his Thomas Aquinas. At least two of his rhetorical questions are answered at some length in the Summa Theologica. I've already endeavoured to briefly highlight those answers already, and at 4:30 in the morning, I'm rather disinclined to delve into the rest at this juncture.

Since you have stated in your article that God could indeed stop evil “but not without eliminating our freedom of choice”, you are left with proving a) your assumption that the elimination of evil would destroy free-choice, and b) that the free-will/mystery problem isn't just a theological emollient; that is, a non-answer.

A) God will indeed eliminate evil--that is, at His own glorious self-revelation at the end of the age. Evil will be eliminated because, seeing God for who God is, our intellect, will, and senses will be fixed only on Him, our ultimate Good. Our choices will melt away, because we will be so completely caught up in Him that all lesser goods will pale in comparison. Although they will still exist, they will be seen in their right relation to God, our ultimate Good, in a way that our disordered appetites do not see them, or Him, now. This, it seems to me, is the only way that God can eliminate evil without simply "turning off" our freedom. Even in that instance, our "freedom" will be lessened as if irresistibly pulled by a powerful magnet (or, sadly, for those who chose to prefer other goods to God, and so persist in sin, repelled by the opposite polarity--this of course is the source of suffering for the damned--knowing the ultimate good and losing it). Why God does not simply come now, I do not know. I simply know that by remaining hidden, He gives us the ability to choose to seek Him above all other goods.

B) If "mystery" is a non-answer, ironically, the non-answer would be far more satisfying than the "answer". That is, there is no answer, but no answer with a God is better than no answer without a God. Consider the answers:

Atheistic Materialism: There is no meaning, thus there is no rationale for labelling things as good or evil. Suffering occurs for the same reason that pleasure occurs--random chance.

Eastern Philosophy: Reality is an illusion. Suffering and evil is the result of clinging to that illusion.

Polytheism: The blessed and immortal gods are playing games, and we're the pawns.

Islam: God's a capricious tyrant who controls and causes absolutely everything according to His whim.

Judeo-Christianity: While God is good and loving, He permits adversity and evil for reasons that aren't quite clear, but promises to work even those evils for our greater good if we choose to trust Him and cooperate with Him.

If the Christian answer is simply a non-answer, none of the others fare any better. I have chosen the Christian answer, for reasons completely independent of the question, and found I was doubly pleased by the fact that this (non) answer was much much more satisfying than the alternatives.

Gregory said...

I have concentrated on the above aspects of your article to the exclusion of some others because these are the items I found particularly loose in your treatment of the problem of evil, and the riddle of Epicurus.

Indeed, loose in the effort to save time and boredom for my readers--this was originally written in four parts in Barque of Peter's comboxes after all. Loose, also, mainly, because they weren't in the end the total thrust of my argument, but most of what you addressed was rather secondary to my main point (which, incidentally, you didn't address).

I would be quite happy to go after a few more, if you're open to a thorough-going debate on the issue.

Quite frankly, I'm really not. I wrote this article, mainly, as a reply to a Catholic who was troubled by Epicurus' riddle, and wanted to know the Catholic response to it. He has since let me know that he's more than satisfied with the response. I'm more than happy to leave it at that and concentrate on other things. Your rhetoric, and repeated insinuations that I am either not permitted or not capable of reasoning things out for myself--or that somehow bothering to do so instead of seeking a wiser voice than my own is somehow intellectually superior, is, quite frankly, unwelcome and grating. Others have noticed your growing antagonism and lack of substance lately as well.

And thank you for posting the original question from Barque of Peter. We can debate also, if you wish, on the difficulties of institutionalized answers verses freely-reasoned answers at some point in the future, too. That is, if you're agreeable to a resolution the likes of which would challenge your Catholic context.

Again, no, I'm really not interested in such a debate. I've got precious little free time these days as it is to waste it exchanging blows with you on the subject of intellectual snobbery.

I look forward to your rebuttal.

I look forward to sleeping. It apparently amounts to cognitive dissonance to convince myself that I can do both.

Kane Augustus said...

Gregory,

I can't really appreciate your reticence to debate/discuss these issues, but you're entitled to your prerogative. I will respect that.

Until you invite me back, I will remain in absentia to your boards.

I only wish it could've worked out differently. You're a decent sparring partner, and I will miss what little contact we have in these mediums.

Warmly,
Kane

Gregory said...

I honestly wish it could, too. But when I start dreading posting new material because I'm anticipating having to fight with you constantly; when I begin losing sleep over not having time to adequately respond (and indeed, pull an all-nighter in order to respond) I know I need to be afforded space to step back.

It doesn't mean I'm done debating you (though I still think this venue isn't the best, and would prefer Barque to here). I just need a moment to regroup. Too much change in my life at the moment; too much else on my mind.

Please know that I hold you and our friendship in the highest regard, and that, perhaps more than any other reason, is why I need to stop sparring with you for a bit.

Thanks for understanding,
God bless
Gregory