Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Paradox of the Soul-Building Defense of Evil

According the soul-building defense against the problem of evil, God has an interest in presenting us with a challenging world that rigidly conforms to natural laws. If the world bends to protect us from the consequences of our bad decisions, then we will learn nothing, we will not develop morally, we won’t grown in knowledge and power. Those that would argue that suffering is evidence against the existence of God have a mistaken assumption that a good and loving God would want to put us into a hedonistic paradise where no one would ever endure any pain. If God put us in that world, there would be no challenges, and no opportunities to develop moral virtue. But a world that has natural disasters, disease, violence, pestilence, war, and strife provides opportunities for us to acquire generosity, love, compassion, and moral responsibility.

There are a number of interesting objections to this view, but here’s what I take to be a devastating problem. What the soul-building theodicist is saying is that we are supposed to develop moral virtue in a world where the paragon of moral virtue, God himself, responds to widespread, horrific, and pointless suffering by refusing to do anything about it at all. So in effect, we are supposed to develop our capacities to take responsibility for suffering and prevent it wherever possible while we acknowledging that the most loving and morally virtuous thing that can be done for those that suffer is to ignore their plight completely. That’s what God, in his infinite moral wisdom, has seen fit to do, after all. So I must either deliberately defy God’s own wisdom and his example and try to develop some behaviors that he lacks, or I must emulate his example and leave sentient beings to endure whatever befalls them. Clearly, neither answer makes any sense. And no one is going to develop moral virtue either way.

One response that we might anticipate is someone who offers this sort of justification for God: “It’s the morally appropriate and loving thing for God to leave us in the challenging soul-building arena, but that doesn’t justify us in being complacent nor does it absolve us of our moral responsibilities to help those in need.” But this double-speak didn’t work when your father said “Do as I say, not as I do” and it doesn’t here either. God, or God’s representatives, cannot legitimately claim that it is both the pinnacle of love and care for humanity to neglect them when they face horrible suffering and claim that it is morally virtuous and loving to reach out wherever possible and to help them in their needs. On their view, God, the ultimate example of moral virtue, does nothing to alleviate or prevent pointless suffering in the world.

As with many cases we’ve seen, believing in God actually creates more of an impediment to being moral with these sorts of conflicting messages, rationalized conundrums, and double-standard justifications. Once again, it would appear that only the nonbeliever can acknowledge and pursue real moral virtue.


NAL said...

If suffering provides opportunities for us to acquire generosity, love, compassion, and moral responsibility, and we alieviate that suffering, are we not depriving those we help of the opportunities to acquire generosity, love, compassion, and moral responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Remember- the torture leaves you stronger... against more torture.

Rehab said...

Suffering offers nothing except suffering.

Your list of dead Gods is a terrible one.

Ishtar is Astarre translated from cultist forms into Astaroth in Enlgish and is VERY VERY VERY not dead.

Astaroth seats with Satan himself.

I couldn't figure out your wierd list after I saw Istar.

Aside from where you're wrong on that point "natural law" does not protect good nor evil and this force remains neutral. Evil is a problem and ignorance, selfishiness, belligerance, repression and common misunderstandings all result from BLOGS like this INCREASING common misunderstandings.

So what else are yoU WRONG about ????

Rehab said...


Venus is the Roman Goddess of Love.

She is very alive in Italian Art-work.

As for as Venus the planet goes anything as complex and systematic as the forces partaking with Venus the planet are awe inspiring and respectable here and now.

Respectable and comparible.

Anonymous said...

Woah, is this "Rehab" person serious?

How can someone not comprehend such a simple essay as the listing of formerly worshiped beings (pre-dating Christianity) that are no to be believed as real beings?

As for suffering offering nothing but suffering, it leaves quite a question as to why an all-good all-powerful being such as, oh I dunno say, God would allow such a horrible thing to exist.

Or maybe it was just Satan, who inflicted horrible suffering on people but God can't or won't stop him because he's on lunch break for a few billion years.

Anyhow, I have a crazy fundie-approved tinfoil hat you can wear if you'd like, that'll keep those dead gods out of your head.

John said...

This is a great objection to the soul-building theodicy. Nicely put. -JP

TheTheist said...

Huh. I can see the paradox you have setup yet unfortunately it suffers from what most atheistic arguments (at least in relation to the problem of evil) suffer from; primarily a greater or lesser degree of ignorance in relation to the nature of God. This is to be expected though and I mean nothing negative by the word ignorant. The problem of this paradox arises from thinking that outside of complete prevention there is nothing that God does to alleviate suffering? It seems atheists are so apt to take the all or nothing approach when trying to understand evil; either God should take it all away or he is just a heartless bastard. There is a key distinction to be made however between prevention and alleviation. If a parent fails to prevent the death of their child’s pet, does that mean they do not care? Should the child disbelieve in their parents love because they did not prevent such tragedy? I would think not. The parents will likely show love and kindness to the child; doing their best to explain that sometimes unfortunate accidents happen that are outside of our control. Does all the consolation, love, and understanding that is shown after a tragedy amount to nothing simply because the tragedy has taken place? That would be an interesting argument I have yet seen to be made. It is here however, in our attempts to “alleviate” suffering, that we follow God‘s example. God does not sit idly by and watch his children struggle under the weight of a progressive existence; always is he trying to lessen the burden of life. There is allowance of suffering; never indifference. Of course this begs the question: why the allowance? Indeed, the parent does not allow the death of their child‘s pet, they simply try to help them cope with it. The soul building argument has a lot to say here. It is hard to ignore that sometimes in our darkest moments we find our greatest opportunities for courage and triumph. It is hard to ignore that sometimes we do not resolutely determine to fight evil until we have met it face to face. It is hard to ignore that sometimes you have to trip and fall before you learn to walk. Just as we will fault a parent for being overprotective, would we not also fault a God is so paranoid for our safety that he controls every aspect of our lives so that we will never come into harms way? The soul building argument is of course not the only reason for the allowance of evil and there are numerous issues in need of addressing. I shall not however engage beyond the scope of this specific issue. Hence, there is no “paradox of soul building” unless you succumb to thinking that the only sign of love is complete prevention of all misfortune in your life. Just as we try and soften the unfortunate occurrences that befall our friends and family, God vigilantly works to provide solace during our moments of sorrow. We bestow compassion and wisdom as compassion and wisdom are bestowed upon us.

Matt McCormick said...

Let's try to think outside the dogma box here, Theist. It's not that I'm ignorant that these sorts of things get said about suffering, it's that I find it all utterly implausible.

The parent metaphor has swept people up to the point that they can't see how disanalogous it is with the sort of divine being God is alleged to be.

You said, "If a parent fails to prevent the death of their child’s pet, does that mean they do not care?"

Sure this makes perfect sense for a parent who is not all powerful, not all knowing, and who can't do anything to prevent the pet's dying. But I thought we were talking about the ultimate ground of all reality, the creator of the universe, the master of all things. Are you suggesting that he does care about our suffering but just can't do anything about it? Then the obvious point is that a being like that must not be powerful enough to do anything about it.

You said, "The parents will likely show love and kindness to the child; doing their best to explain that sometimes unfortunate accidents happen that are outside of our control."

Yep, parents who aren't the creators of the universe, who don't have infinite power and knowledge will admit that there are things outside of their control. So you're conceding that suffering is outside of God's control? He is alleged to have set the whole thing up afterall. He took a state of affairs where there was no suffering, nothing to be comforted about, and then set it all up so that all of this suffering would unfold. And you want us to swallow this idea that it's happening is perfectly consistent with his being the infinite, Almighty, the source of everything? Really?

You said, "Does all the consolation, love, and understanding that is shown after a tragedy amount to nothing simply because the tragedy has taken place?"

I think one of the reasons that lots of people feel comfortable saying stuff like this is that they haven't really appreciated what we're talking about. The Christmas tsunami in Thailand killed about 240,000 people. Countless others had their homes destroyed, families ruined, livelihoods lost. Tens of thousands of children were made orphans. And that's just one of a long list of examples.

You're saying that God's love and consolation is all that is needed for all of those people? I guess I can't really say they amount to nothing because I can't even tell what that means. Exactly what is the difference in appearance between a world where those disasters happen and God loves and consoles the victims and a world where there's no God? The world we are in looks exactly like you'd expect it to look if there wasn't one. It would appear that no matter what happens, God gets credit for loving and consoling. Are there any possible events that could occur where you would concede it doesn't look like God cares? See my previous post on: The Double Standard of God's Goodness. and also: Everything Is To The Glory of God.

TheTheist said...

I am sorry my friend. I never meant to say you were ignorant to the positions only to their understanding.

With regards to your opinion on the disanalogous nature of the parent-child metaphor I think you are incorrect. The point of an analogy is to compare things that are similar, not identical. If identical character was the requirement for an analogy than it seems we would have a “paradox of analogy”: A is like B and exactly the same. Besides, similar analogies are drawn all the time. Does not evolutionary biology draw analogies between the social behavior of primates and humans? Should I deny this as having no bearing because although I share traits with primates I obviously have ones that far exceed them as well? Is the fact that I have the ability to consciously give reason to my actions, to self reflect, to plan into the future, negate any and all analogous comparison? We seem to “choose” where as primates tend to have an “evolutionary prerogative.” Creationists might be apt to use this as proof that we are obviously not related to primates. I wonder, would you let them of the hook? So yes, parents are forced to react to a situation where as God chooses to allow it. This does not mean however that he does not react at all. I use the parent-child reference because it is the strongest example of God’s relationship with us. We tend to our children in need as God tends to his.

In your response you did not even touch this issue however. Not once did you did defend your paradox. In order for your paradox to work you would have to prove that every single person who claims to receive guidance, assistance, love, etc. from God was wrong. This is impossible though as even you must admit the “idea” of God (I assume this is all you allow) helps people in need. The alleviation is real, even if you entertain the notion that the source is false. Therefore God, fact or fiction, is very much active in uplifting his children. Your paradox rests on an absolute (all neglect on one hand and total attentiveness on the other) and therefore falls under its own assertion. There is no such thing as “total” neglect when it comes to God, believer or not.

I do however understand where you’re coming from. It seems you have more of a problem with how the “allowance” of evil can exist side by side with caring, not so much that this caring is felt or perceived. In this regard your article should have focused on the issues with soul building, not the paradox of such. I’m not sure why you insinuated that I intended to say God “cannot” prevent suffering as I think I made it quite clear it is allowed, not inevitable.

Nonetheless, in relation to these “issues” it seems you have missed a very important theistic concept that is in need of addressing. I will therefore try and explain this in regard to the soul building position. Hopefully this will provide a better understanding of the argument while at the same time it might help you better grasp the parent metaphor and my reasons for choosing it.

Your problem with my metaphor rests on the fact that parents cannot do anything to prevent tragedy in their child’s lives. For the sake of argument then let us imagine a parent who “can” prevent such tragedies. Let us give this parent all the abilities of an omnipotent, omniscient God who is all that is good. For good measure let us stick them in the existential category of the infinite as well; no beginning no end. Now I imagine we can without too much quibble agree that this parent would want their child to live forever (who wants their child to die) and would therefore grant the child eternal life. Remember, our parent is all powerful. This is a necessary corollary of the soul building argument. You cannot understand the allowance of suffering if you only look at it from its immediate context.

Now, with the gift of infinite life being given, is it still heartless to let the child be raised in a world where they have to face the vicissitudes of life? That is, is it cruel to let a child grow up in a world where they encounter opportunities to learn by trial and tribulation, being they need not fear ultimate death? Our omni-parent has given the greatest gift of all: the ability to live forever. In this context the suffering of life is temporary and transient; never is it permanent.

With this in mind, do you think our omni-parents would prefer an existence in which their children must “build” strength of character, courage, willpower, etc. or one where they have no need for such things? Would they want a world in which their children have an opportunity to “choose” the good over the bad or one in which there is no such opportunity by virtue of their being nothing negative? I think most parents would opt for the former of these examples. Basically, I think parents want their children to be virtuous by way of decision, not by way of default.

God is no different here than our omni-parents. He has created a universe full of uncertainty for us to grow up in while simultaneously protecting us from any real harm.

Thus, the soul building argument does have its merits. It seems there is more honor in being able to overcome obstacles rather than having none at all. Bill Gates started in a basement and rose to the top. Paris Hilton was given a blank check from the get go. Let me ask you MM. Who do you think turned out to be a better person?

Anonymous said...

I personally don't have enough faith to be an atheist. There is far too much evidence to the contrary. People choose not to believe for their own reasons and they will have to deal with that issue when they die... I just hope they spend enough time to study ALL the available arguments on both sides. It will speak for itself.

Miguel said...

You postulate a dicotomy between humans and primates. That is false. The correct one is humans and other primates. Chimpanzees and bonobos (Pan) are more closely relate to humans than they are to any other living animal species, excluding themselves. There is more genetic closeness (kinship)between chimpanzees and humans than there is between chimpanzees and gorillas. Humans, chimpanzees and bonobos are more closely linked to gorillas than gorillas are related to orangutans.
These five species (bonobos, chimpanzees, humans, gorillas and orangutans) are called great apes and are more related to each other than to the rest of animals. Gibons are the lesser apes. Gibons are more related to the great apes than to the monkeys. Apes(including humans) plus old world monkeys are catarhines. New world monkeys are platirhines. Catarhines (including humans) plus platirhines are simians. Simians (including humans) plus prosimians (lemurs) are primates.
Primates (including humans), horses, lions, rats and whales are euteria (lit. good beasts). Euteria (including men and women) plus kangaroos and platypus are mammals. Mammals(including humans) along with birds, lizards and frogs are tetrapoda and along with sardines, sharks and lampreys are vertebrates and with corals, sponges and worms they are also animals. So humans are apes, simians, primates, mammals, vertebrates and animals and with bacteria, archea and plants they are living beings. So, Theist, get out of the center of the universe because the universe has no center at all, maybe there infinite universes. Astronomers had discovered hundreds of planets outside our solar system. That and many other discoveries point to the existence of other living planets around many stars. So, as time goes by, humans are losing the last pretensions of being at a central point in the so called "creation".
Another thing: infinity is not the same as eternity. Infinity has a beginning but has no end, eternity has neither beginning nor end.
Your theist paradigm appear to be cristian, i.e: only one short life in the incommensurable eternity. But the life of each being is different in its dose of suffering. Some people have a happy life, other have a horrible one. Why if only one life is granted the "given" doses of pain are different. Are not we all equal under "God"? The budhist and brahmanic paradigms appear to be more efficient with more opportunities to equalize the "given" suffering in the long run after zillions of lifetimes granted to each being. By the other hand, maybe there is not enough suffering in the universe and we have to make human sacrifices to appease the aztec pantheon (Quetzalcoatl and his gang), especially after a lull of 500 years without blood being spill over the pyramids and hearts taken with obsidian knives.