Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ask Satan

In the comments section of last Friday’s Ask Satan, Mauigirl brought up a question of theodicy:

How can evil exist if God made everything and God is all-good?

Perhaps you can explain this in a future post!

Dear Mauigirl,

Well I could just tell you the answer, but what fun would that be? Let’s approach this question instead as an exercise in formal logic, then we can talk about the details as we go.

The question you pose has two premises (“God made everything” and “God is all-good”); it implies that an unstated conclusion (evil cannot exist) follows from the premises but is false, leading to a paradox. Logically speaking, the paradox can be resolved in one of three ways, or in a combination: either the first premise is not true, the second premise is not true, or the unstated conclusion does not follow logically from the premises. Let’s examine each of these three possibilities:

“God made everything.” Did he? This statement can be negated trivially, by simply providing a counterexample, such a “I made my own breakfast, not God.” However, that approach is really a semantic dodge, as the premise statement intends to mean that God made the universe and its contents, physical laws, etc., not that he directly controls everything within the universe.

One nontrivial contradictory statement is “God made some things, but not everything.” Per Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” Does “everything” include more than “the heaven and the earth”? For example, the planet Jupiter is not part of the earth, is it part of heaven? What about hell? It seems quite reasonable to suppose that there are things that are neither part of heaven nor earth, though the fact that Genesis does not mention their creation says nothing about who created them. More interestingly, perhaps God created heaven and earth, but not the universe – the universe being a setting in which all God’s creations were made. (Or similarly, God could have created the universe, but there could be other universes as well. They are irrelevant to this discussion unless they can affect things in this universe, though.) A related question is whether there was time before the beginning. Finally, one very interesting question in this general category is the question of how God was created. Did he create himself? Was he created by man? If God did not create himself, he did not create everything, which opens up the possibility of multiple creative agents.

Finally, there is the contradictory statement, “God made nothing,” most interesting due to its subset, “God does not exist.” That’s a question for another day – it’s a major thrust of theodicy, in fact.

Next premise: “God is all-good.” Is he? The fundamental question here is what is meant by “good.” In the context of this question “good” is taken to be the opposite of “evil.” In fact, it is not at all necessary to delve into the nature of good and evil to analyze the logic of the question, we only need the understanding that they are opposite and complementary. The primary question regarding this premise is whether good can exist or is a meaningful idea in the absence of evil. If it cannot, then for God to be all-good, there must be evil somewhere. This conclusion becomes very interesting when juxtaposed with first premise, because if evil exists, and God made everything, then God made evil, which would appear to contradict the statement that God is all-good – unless good does not require the existence of evil.

“Evil does not exist.” Does this conclusion follow logically from the premises “God made everything” and “God is all-good”? To start with, let’s accept the additional premise that good does not require the existence of evil to exist – if we do not, we’ve already assumed evil exists, so there’s not much to discuss! As such, it certainly could be the case that evil does not exist, as the all-good God could have created a universe containing no evil. (Note that we cannot argue that evil comes into existence spontaneously, as that would contract the premise that God made everything.) However, it is not necessarily the case that an all-good God would construct the universe to contain no evil. Suppose that God wishes to maximize the amount of good in the universe, but that the maximum amount of good is not achieved in a universe with zero evil. For example, relative to a universe with zero evil, what if a universe with an additional one unit of evil (whatever that means) has two additional units of good? Then it would make sense to add evil until good stopped increasing. (There could be a different metric, such as total good minus total evil instead of just total good, but that’s not the point – any non-zero-sum system in which the “good” metric is not optimized when evil equals zero has this property.) So, in fact, the conclusion does not follow from the premises.

Another view is to return to the second premise, and assume that rather than being the opposite of good, that evil is unrelated to good. However, this line of thought is not very fruitful in the context our paradox. If God is all-good and created everything, but evil is unrelated to good, then the two premises have no relevance to whether evil exists or not.

In summary, both premises can be questioned, but most importantly, the unstated conclusion is not a necessary consequence of the premises. To put the discussion in more specific terms, if God created everything, and God is all-good, God can still have created evil to give meaning to the creation of free will, in order to achieve a greater good. (The end justifies the means?)

Now, Mauigirl, since you asked me in particular, I imagine you want some insight into how things actually are instead of just an abstract discussion. First, God didn’t create everything, just some things. Second, in my experience God is not all-good, not in the sense people mean. He can be a real bastard, actually. (You can define good to be God and everything he does, of course, but then this whole discussion is completely academic.) Finally, even though the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premises, it’s not as wrong as it looks. Evil was already around, and in fact it does come about completely spontaneously, even in the areas that were created by God. He can’t keep it out. Free will just gives you the choice between the good and the evil – or more often, between the evil and the other evil.

Have fun choosing,

-- Satan

P.S. Taking off early for the weekend tomorrow, I’ll be back next week.

Ask Satan is published irregularly per questions received. Have a question for Satan? Email it to Satan or post it in the comments.


Mauigirl said...

Wow, a thought-provoking post! Lots of food for thought here. It almost seems as if it could be translated into an algebraic equation, if I were good at such a thing. Which I'm not! Excellent analysis, will digest it and perhaps comment more later!

In terms of your last paragraph, it makes plenty of sense. First of all, I agree God isn't always "good" in the way we might interpret "good." Destroying all of humanity except Noah and his family wasn't exactly nice. I doubt Noah was the only righteous person on earth at the time. And it didn't even make sense because some of his family weren't so hot and evil continued to flourish after the Flood.

And it also makes sense, if God is trying to see whether people would choose him if they have free will, that there has to be an alternative.

My question is, does this mean God is just some kind of scientist who's hanging around up there playing with his experimental subjects? Or possibly, a la Star Trek (or perhaps Twilight Zone), the child of a race of superior beings who is playing with toys?

Mauigirl said...

BTW, I just added you to my blogroll - love your blog and am enjoying catching up on your older posts.

FranIAm said...

You do see Satan, that I have added to your popularity.

Not that you asked or needed me. I get that.

But nonetheless I have...

As for the post, fascinating. I must digest this. I will return and you are off trolling about anyway, have fun.

Satan said...

Mauigirl - Glad to hear you're enjoying my short history of older posts. I'm flattered!

Formal logic can be written out with mathematical symbols, actually.

I don't know that I'd call God a scientist, exactly, because scientists are doing experiments with the goal of trying to understand the underlying rules and nature of the universe, or specific parts of it, whereas God already knows the answers. Is he doing experiments? Yes, but more to see what can happen given the rules of the system he already understands. Maybe that makes him an artist rather than a scientist? (And me too.)

The "child of a superior race" view is amusing, though I would not say superior. I claim humans are just as good as him (and me), just more limited and less powerful. And "child" is also interesting because it hints at one thing about God that is often overlooked - he learns and changes. The guy who created humanity and free will with the expectation that all humans would naturally choose to worship him no longer holds that belief; he's not the same guy who sent his son out to be brutally executed.

In fact, that's another argument for why "evil does not exist" does not necessarily follow from "God made everything" and "God is all-good": God could have created evil accidentally.

FranIAm - I am online this weekend, just didn't expect to have time for a full post...

I do enjoy having more people to talk to, and appreciate you sending them my way. It's especially interesting becuase I think most of the people who read this blog now fundamentally disagree with me on many issues - politics, religion, many even taste in music and, I don't know, shoes, not that we've talked about those things.

-- Satan

FranIAm said...

Isn't disagreement a source of life? Not violent disagreement- that I do not want. However I always long to speak to others who see through a different lens.

Many problems would not emerge or they might be solved if people actually interacted.

Now on religion we probably most certainly disagree. But we can't let that come between us!

Shoes could end up the deal breaker. I am not a big shoe person- I tend toward the more utilitarian except for the privacy of my bedroom!

See - you have had some influence upon me.

Übermilf said...

You don't even have shoes on your little cloven hooves.

And you smell like sulfur. Don't you ever take a bath?

Satan said...

Ubermilf - I only wear the cloven hooves on special occasions. Usually when I go out amongst the humans I use human feet, and then I wear shoes.

Yes, I bathe. In sulfur. My biochemistry ain't like yours. I'd prefer not to say what you descendents-of-monkeys smell like to me.

-- Satan

Satan said...

Fran - You wear utilitarian shoes except in the bedroom? My, things must get interesting in there...

FranIAm said...

Oh yes they do indeed. The non-utilitarian shoes are always a plus.