A puzzle about theodicy
I’m reading an interesting book, The Improbability of God, edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier. A collection of arguments on the subject. There’s a whole section on inductive evil arguments against the existence of God. In one, ‘An Argument from Non-gratuitous Evil’ by Thomas Metcalf, a half-sentence on page 330 started a train of thought: ‘If God exists, all the evil that befalls us is justified…’
The train of thought was about the subject matter of this whole section of the book, which is theodicy in general. It’s one that’s puzzled me for ages, but it took a perhaps slightly new form this time. The traditional idea or definition of ‘God’ is that it is omnipotent omniscient and omnibenevolent (also eternal). But – that’s strange. That’s stranger than we generally notice, it seems to me (unless I’m missing something). The third item doesn’t fit.
It makes sense, within the terms of reference of talking about ‘God’ at all, to define ‘God’ as omnipotent and omniscient. It has to be those in order to create the universe (though I suppose you could substitute veryvery for omni), and it is generally considered to have done that thing. We could think of God as the boss of just one corner of the universe, but theists generally don’t, so that’s a separate subject. Omnipotent and omniscient fit into the usual understandings and definitions; they make sense there; but what is omnibenevolent doing there? One, benevolence is hardly necessary in order to create the universe, and two, what does the universe have to do with benevolence? If you look at the universe and then think someone created it, you have to think of that someone as having a large quantity of power and knowledge; but benevolence? I don’t see why that’s even relevant.
The problem of evil, of course, has to do with reconciling a benevolent or Perfectly Good God with the existence of suffering (aka evil). But there again – why is it assumed that God is Perfectly Good? Or Good at all? Because that’s part of the definition; yes, but why? We can see why power and knowledge are, but I have to say, I have a hard time seeing why goodness is.
Goodness (or benevolence) seems like a different kind of thing – like the perfect island that is actually not perfect if you prefer a different kind of island. Power and knowledge are somewhat objective, universalizable qualities, but goodness isn’t. It is possible to make arguments for objective universalizable human goods, but they are human goods; it is possible to make arguments for extending some of them to all sentient beings on this planet; but that’s still a very local version of good. That’s what the word is – a word that describes what finite contingent mortal sentient beings prefer; it doesn’t describe anything cosmic, or if it does we have no idea how.
This matters because theists reply to atheist arguments from evil that humans can’t know what all possible goods are, and that suffering may be (or just is) necessary in order that other greater goods may exist, and that therefore the existence of horrible pointless (apparently, as far as we can tell pointless) suffering is not a reason to think God does not exist. In other words, ‘God’ is still perfectly good, still omnibenevolent, it’s just that it is those things in ways that are hidden to us but that make our sufferings (our=all sentient beings) justifiable all the same.
Well – it’s perfectly possible to suppose that, of course – but by exactly the same token, it’s also perfectly possible to suppose that, for instance, what ‘God’ means by ‘good’ is the enjoyment derived from watching sentient beings suffer. How the hell do we know? That’s not our definition of good, but the theists’ whole point there is that our definition isn’t the only possible definition and that it’s limited and inadequate. Maybe it is, but why do the theists get to suppose that the real, hidden, secret, theist definition is ‘good’ in any sense at all? Why do they assume that? Why isn’t it at least as likely that the secret hidden reasons that we don’t know about are indifferent or malevolent? If it’s unknown, it’s unknown, and there’s no more reason to assume it’s benevolent and good than there is to assume it’s sadistic and bad, or to assume it has no moral content whatever.