Science and a Significant Being Theodicy
Nelson Pike, in the introduction to his book “God and Evil,” states the problem of evil thusly:
If God is omnipotent, then He could prevent evil if He wanted to. And if God is perfectly good, then He would want to prevent evil if He could. Thus, if God exists and is both omnipotent and perfectly good, then there exists a being who could prevent evil if he wanted to, and who would want to prevent evil if he could. And if this last is true, how can there be so many evils in the world? (1964:1)
No problem has been more perplexing for the theist than this one. In the prophetic words of Hume, “nothing can shake the solidity of this reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive.”
Of course the theist can “solve” the problem by sacrificing one or more of God’s defining attributes; omniscience,omnipotence or benevolence. But what would be left would no longer be the God of traditional theism, the God of the Judeo, Christian, Islamic tradition. The remaining shell of a god would be of little interest to human beings because he could be of little or no help to us in this world.
Since this solution has never been acceptable to theists they have sought instead solutions to the problem that would preserve God’s defining attributes. These “explanations” of evil, that would still allow for the existence of the God of traditional theism are called theodicies. Traditionally these theodicies have taken two forms: (1) Some have sought to solve the problem of evil by trying to show that there really is no evil in this world and thus there really is no problem. (2) The majority of them have accepted the existence of evil but have sought to show that evil plays a positive, and perhaps even necessary role in human life. As might be imagined these traditional theodicies have come under severe criticism in the history of philosophy, and justly so. They crumble under serious philosophical reflection. Further, it is not just the atheist who sees the weakness in these theodicies. Most believers intuitively sense that there are problems with them when a tragedy befalls a friend, a family member, or themselves. It would be a positive development if we could rid theistic discourse of these traditional theodicies once and for all.
Restatement of the Problem
To make a discussion of the problem of evil more manageable I would like to use the word “evil” interchangeably with the phrase “human suffering.” Now surely there are more evils in the world than human sufferings but such sufferings are the key elements in the problem. When I use the word evil then I am referring primarily to human suffering.
A simple study of the human condition reveals not only that all human beings suffer sometime but that there is a breadth and a depth to suffering that seems to transcend any rational boundary. The breadth of suffering can be seen in the fact that even today the majority of people in the world are living lives of poverty and want. In two of the past thirty years over 25 million people, mostly women and children, died of starvation. The U.N. reports that 42,000 children in the third world die each day of common childhood illnesses.
The depth of suffering can be seen in the unlimited suffering that individual human beings must endure. Some children are born ill and live out their five or six years of life in constant pain. They die at last without ever knowing a day of enjoyment. In fact death seems like a welcome relief. People with AIDS are not immune from cancer. In fact it is likely that they will get cancer. A father may have to live out his life alone after an auto accident has killed his wife and three children. The mentally ill may spend forty to fifty years in an institution where the physical and mental torment never ends.
In the context of the breadth and depth of suffering the problem of evil seems overwhelming. If the God of traditional theism exists, why would He have created a universe where this kind of suffering is possible? Any why would He let it continue?
The Traditional Theodicies
Before proceeding to an evaluation of the traditional theodicies that try to answer these questions it is important to indicate that the possible existence of an evil force, a devil, operating in the universe does not in any way solve the problem. If there is a devil causing evil such a being is permitted to operate by its omnipotent creator and the problem of evil remains.
As was mentioned traditional theodicies that attempt to solve the problem of human suffering fall into two general categories. Either they attempt to argue that there really is no evil or they argue that evil exists but plays a positive and perhaps even necessary role in human life. Most of those who argue that there is no evil suggest that human beings think there is evil because of their cognitive limitations. God who is infinitely above man sees that everything is good or that the “whole” is good. Of course it is never made clear how we might know that to God everything is good or the “whole” is good. Further, this view contradicts the basic reports of our senses which tell us that evil is real, and in so doing it renders human existence hopelessly futile and meaningless. It would be hard to reconcile a good God with such an impoverished view of man.
There is however one version of the “no evil” argument that is worth noting. A metaphysics that views evil as non-being has considerable merit. However, it would be incumbent upon such a metaphysics to then distinguish between evil and suffering. Evil may be non-being but the suffering it causes is quite real.
The majority of theists accept the reports of our senses that tell us that there is an abundance of evil in the world, but they feel that God uses evil for a positive purpose. The most honest of this group, recognizing that they cannot imagine a purpose for the vast amount of gratuitous suffering that they observe, suggest that God has intentionally made the purpose of evil a mystery for us. This again however puts us in a hopeless situation. If evil has a purpose that we are not privy to, then it is not at all clear what we are supposed to do with it. Should we try to eliminate all evil or just some evil? If we eliminate all evil would we then also eliminate whatever positive role it plays in human life? And if we should eliminate some evil, but not all, then which evils should we attack, or perhaps, better, whose evils should we attack? Human life would become quite confused to say the least.
Most of the theists who accept the existence of evil, suggest that there is a purpose to evil that human beings can know. Evil exists they argue for the sake of good. The purpose of evil is to serve the good. Without evil, it is argued, good would not be possible, e.g. without someone in need we could not be charitable. Without evil we would not, by contrast, even know or appreciate the good, e.g. hard times help us to enjoy good times. And without evil greater goods would not follow, e.g. problems in a family often draw the members of that family closer together.
The problem with this theodicy depends upon how it is nuanced. If the theodicy is used to blur the distinction between good and evil then evil becomes good and we are back to the “no evil” problem. It would become “good” then for earthquakes or disease to occur because they would be occasions for charity. On the other hand if a radical distinction is maintained between good and evil then it follows from this theodicy that a perfectly good God intentionally wills human suffering, an obvious contradiction, on the chance that it be an occasion for good. Further since God intentionally wills evil it follows that human efforts to remove it, despite some apparent successes, must ultimately prove futile. Human freedom, if it existed at all, would be severely limited and the meaning of human life would be called into question because we would be literally fighting the will of God if we tried to remove all evil. The theist’s position would again be hopeless.
There Is No Necessary Connection between Evil and Good
Although it is certainly true that evil can be an occasion for good, it can also be an occasion for more evil. There is no necessary connection between evil and good in this world.1 Assigning a positive value to evil, in addition to being an obvious contradiction, also ignores basic human experience. The reports of our senses reveal to us that evil is real and that it has no redeeming value. A positive human response to evil does have significant value but this value doesn’t justify the evil.
The reality of evil, and its lack of positive value, causes the traditional theodicies to fail. A successful theodicy must accept the reality of evil and its lack of value, and also make provision for the perfect goodness of God. It appears that this analysis of the problem has made a successful theodicy more unlikely. But I believe a deeper look at the analysis reveals the outline of a theodicy with considerable merit.
Preamble to the New Theodicy2
A successful theodicy must it seems begin with the following:
- The reports of our senses are correct. Evil exists, and there is a breadth and a depth to human suffering that can, at times, exceed all rational boundaries.
- Although this evil can be an “occasion” for good, in itself it has no positive value. Evil is evil, it is never good.
- A perfectly good God does not use actual evil for any purpose. A perfectly good God must desire what is best for all His creatures at all times.
But if an all powerful God desires what is best for all His creatures at all times, the problem of accounting for the actual existence of evil is certainly not solved. It is however a necessary start for it prevents the contradiction between a perfectly good God and a God who wills evil. The next step is to analyze the idea of creation. The God of traditional theism, as a perfect Being, would not have to create. Creation on His part would be a perfectly free act. If He chose to create, the God of traditional theism would have two broad options:
- The creation of a “play toy” reality. This would be a reality in which God would share existence with his creatures and nothing else. The creatures’ entire activity, if they had any, would be totally determined by God.
- The second possibility would be the creation of a significant reality, a reality with which God would share not only existence but also His powers, i.e. He would give to these significant beings some kind of control over their existence.
Although neither form of creation would be necessary, it would make little sense for a God to create a toy. But it does make some sense for Him to create significant beings, especially beings that could become aware of Him, and respond to Him by the use of the powers He has given them.
Now there may be many types of realities in which significant beings could exist. But one possibility would be a world where time is a central element and where significant beings would be able to interact with other beings, some of them also significant, in time. What would make beings in this world significant would be the fact that they would be able to influence their futures, and thus their existence, by their actions.
In order to be significant in the reality just described beings would have to possess the powers of reason and freedom. Reason so that they could know the alternative futures available to them and how to achieve those futures. Freedom so that they could choose from among those futures and actualize their choices. 3 The world needed to house these significant beings would have to be one then in which a broad range of alternatives are possible. In fact the range of alternatives must in some sense be unrestricted, i.e. unlimited, to guarantee freedom, and thus significance. In addition to possessing unlimited alternative futures the world would also have to be lawlike, i.e. rational in its behavior. Capricious behavior would frustrate reason and thus significance. And since the range of alternatives in this world must be unlimited, significant beings must have in some sense an unlimited capacity to know their world.
Has Significant Creation Occurred?
So far our discussion has remained within the realm of the theoretical. The questions we must address now is the following: Is this universe that we inhabit an example of a significant creation, and are human beings significant beings? Any evidence to that conclusion would have to be broad and unashamedly inductive but I think such evidence exists and is quite strong. Our scientific study of the universe in the past 400 years has not only revealed an immense and complex reality but as our investigation has intensified there seems to be no evidence that the intelligibility of the universe is being exhausted. Modern science writers like Paul Davies, John Gribbin, Richard Morris and others find no difficulty in using the phrase “unlimited possibilities” when talking about this universe. Consider the words of Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson as he concludes his suggestively entitled work Infinite in All Directions:
The hypothesis is that the universe is constructed according to the principle of maximum diversity. The principle of maximum diversity operates both at the physical and at the mental level. It says that the laws of nature and the initial conditions are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. (1988:298)
As rich in possibilities as the universe is now, we also know that it is in process. It is not complete. Cosmic evolution cannot be reduced simply to eternal change. There seems to be direction to the process and the best way to define that direction is in terms of powers and possibilities. The Darwinian Centennial Celebration at the University of Chicago in 1954 concluded that evolution was a one way irreversible process in time that generates novelty, diversity and higher levels of organization in all sectors of the universe. The past 50 years have produced nothing to shake that conclusion and a great deal to reinforce it.
Further evidence that the universe has unlimited potential and possibilities comes from the Principle of Indeterminism in Quantum Mechanics. This principle, understood metaphysically, says that as time passes the universe jumps to higher levels of organization and power. The universe moves into an open future and it enriches itself with possibilities as time goes on. The Anthropic Principle on the other hand says that the universe is finely tuned in terms of its initial conditions, structure and laws to eventually produce carbon based conscious, communicating, intelligent beings. In their recent book, The Matter Myth, Davies and Gribbin put the two Principles together and speculate that eventually the universe will be dominated by (human) intelligence. They offer this summation:
We mentioned these admittedly speculative ideas to illustrate the profound change in perspective that accompanied the move toward a postmechanistic paradigm. In place of the clodlike particles of matter in a lumbering Newtonian machine we have an interlocking network of information exchange–a holistic, indeterministic and open system—vibrant with potentialities and bestowed with infinite richness. The human mind is a by-product of this vast informational process, a by-product with the curious capability of being able to understand, at least in part, the principles on which the process runs. (1992:308-309 Emphasis Mine)
Although there may be many possible creations in which significant beings could exist, the evidence of contemporary science suggests that this universe is one of them. It is reasonable to conclude that the goal of cosmic evolution is the production of significant beings and a universe in which they can be significant. The theist seems justified in saying that, if creation occurred, it was significant.
Statement of the Significant Being Theodicy (SBT)
If this universe is a place where significant beings can exist, and we are significant beings then a new theodicy opens up to us. Significant beings need alternative futures from which to choose and these alternatives must differ in quality. Using the terms “good” and “evil” as quality words, the universe must contain a spectrum of alternatives varying from unlimited good on the one extreme to unlimited evil on the other extreme. Such a range would guarantee that the decisions significant beings would make would be meaningful. Their future and the future of their world would depend upon the quality of the decisions that they made. This leads us to the first two principles of this new theodicy.
P1. The possibility of evil (in the sense of the unlimited range of alternatives) must exist in order for significant beings to actually exist.
P2. No evil is incorrigible, i.e. the possibility of overcoming any evil, by prevention or elimination, must already exist in the universe.
It is not the actuality of evil that must exist in order to have significant beings. Actual evil serves no purpose. But the possibility of evil, as part of an unlimited range of alternatives, must exist in order for the actual existence of significant beings.
Further, if significant beings possess an unlimited rational faculty and unlimited freedom relative to this world, and if the universe is lawlike and allows for an unlimited range of alternative futures then it follows that no evil is incorrigible, i.e. no evil must occur. Significant beings would not be condemned to suffer and this would mean that the God of traditional theism had not in principle created a world where His creatures must suffer.
No Evil is Incorrigible
Despite the broad empirical evidence that exists to indicate that unlimited alternatives are available to human beings it is still necessary to show that in the here and now evils can be prevented or eliminated. The easiest way to do this is to make an obvious division among evils and then to treat them one at a time. Moral evil is evil freely perpetuated by one human being on another. Natural evils, including accidents, befall human beings because of the normal functioning of nature and usually without any human intention or culpability.
Obviously if moral evils are freely perpetrated upon one human being by another then no moral evil ever has to occur. To suggest that human beings must at times behave unjustly or violently is to suggest that they are not really free. The fact that there are people who live lives free of moral evil is inductive evidence that human beings are not compelled to moral evil and is also inductive evidence of real freedom in human beings.
There is also an element of human freedom and culpability in most accidents and natural evils. Automobiles and airplanes, for example, are human artifacts freely invented, freely built, and freely operated. It is not necessary that we operate them recklessly or under the influence of alcohol, drugs, etc. The most famous accident in the past 25 years was the explosion of the Challenger Space Shuttle accompanied by the deaths of the members of the crew. But surely such an accident could have been avoided. The accident was caused by a failed o-ring in a booster rocket that produced a fuel leak that led to the explosion. The o-ring failed because of the subfreezing temperatures at Cape Kennedy the night before the launch. Several NASA engineers warned of the dangers of a launch under those conditions, but NASA officials, under severe economic pressure, decided to proceed. The accident did not have to occur. Similarly, many of our diseases are brought on by what we eat and drink or the environment in which we place our bodies. Our susceptibility to natural disasters often depends upon unwise, imprudent or reckless decisions that we make. The proper exercise of freedom would go a long way in reducing the human suffering caused by accidents and many natural disasters.
Now some will argue that all human adventures will inevitably involve human suffering and perhaps even loss of life. But must human activity necessarily involve human suffering? Perhaps the greatest and most dangerous adventure in human history was the landing of a human being on the moon. Yet that decade-long project was accomplished without the loss of life or even serious injury. The three astronauts who did die during the project were the victims of a fire on the launch pad caused by the fact that one of them forgot to throw an appropriate switch at an appropriate time. Surely this accident did not have to occur. Even the Apollo 13 mission that was compromised by a computer malfunction on the way to the moon was salvaged. The worst that happened was that Commander Lovell caught cold.
But what of extraordinary natural disasters like earthquakes and tornados that seem to defy human attempts to avoid them? And what about diseases that occur despite heroic efforts at prevention? Surely these evils seem to be beyond the responsibility of human beings. Indeed the sufferings produced by these natural disasters is often beyond the responsibility of human beings. But their prevention or elimination is certainly not beyond the powers of human beings. If earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes and diseases all abide by the laws of nature and these laws are knowable then human beings can develop strategies for dealing with them. We have been doing just that for centuries. We are already very close to being able to predict when, where and with what strength an earthquake will occur. With such information no one would necessarily be a victim of such an event. The second time Mount St. Helens erupted in the 1980s there was a 48 hour warning and no one was killed. In like manner the track of hurricanes and other storms can already be predicted with considerable accuracy allowing time for people to take appropriate precautions. The Weather Channel can tell you of the location of any tornado or dangerous storm in any part of the world in real time. Although human suffering still occurs through such natural events it seems clear that such suffering is not necessary.
I have chosen to deal with disease apart from other natural disasters because it seems to be so intimate a part of every human life. Most if not all people feel that degeneration and death are the necessary fate of all biological entities including man. Yet we are also aware of the fact that we have practically eliminated from the face of the earth some of the most insidious diseases, like small pox and polio. We are also aware that life spans in certain parts of the world have doubled in the past century. Some actuarial scientists even predict that people born in the year 2000 may live 150 years.
Several things on this matter must be said. First if diseases like AIDS and cancer operate according to the laws of nature and these laws are knowable then we should be able to deal with them. We have already made great progress in learning how to deal with heart disease which may still be our number one killer. Physicians not only speak of preventing heart disease but of actually reversing it after it has occurred, and without surgery or drugs. Unfortunately, we have not been so successful with AIDS and cancer, but the possibility remains.
But in the end is degeneration and death “natural” for all living organisms? For decades biologists have believed that an organism’s mortality was guaranteed at the cellular level by an “immutable” rule called the Hayflick Limit, after its discoverer Dr. Leonard Hayflick. The Hayflick Limit maintained that cells could grow and divide only a finite number of times before they lapsed into senescence. However at the end of the 20th century biologists at the Geron Corporation in California announced that they had learned how to make cells break the Hayflick Limit. This discovery has led to discussion of extending life significantly, perhaps indefinitely. This research does provide further empirical evidence that the possibilities for significant beings in this world are limitless.
A quick review of the litany of evils that plague human beings then reveals that none are incorrigible in principle. What is necessary is that one, the universe be law-like in its behavior (there is plenty of evidence for this) and two, that the human mind be capable of discovering these laws (there seems to be ample evidence for this as well). It is still true, however, that in the present moment we cannot adequately deal with every disease or successfully defend ourselves from every natural disaster. This theodicy if it is to be ultimately successful must answer that charge.
Although I don’t consider the response I’m about to give to be complete and I certainly do not consider it to be emotionally comforting I think it takes us in the right direction. Real significance requires that our judgments and choices mean something. We are not born knowing all the laws of nature nor are we born understanding all physical phenomena. If we were we would not be able to exercise freedom in the pursuit of knowledge and thus our significance would be compromised. Instead we must also use our power to choose in respect to the pursuit of knowledge, and our significance is maintained. This greatly magnifies our responsibilities. Just as we may perpetrate moral evils on unborn generations by polluting the atmosphere or by not properly disposing of nuclear waste for example, we may also compromise future generations by our present lack of intellectual and spiritual development.
This explanation may be intellectually satisfying in the abstract but is of little comfort to those who are suffering in the here and now. The level of moral evil has grown with technological progress and there are still diseases like AIDS and cancer that we cannot effectively deal with. Children, as Camus highlighted for us, still suffer and die despite their innocence. But perhaps a successful theodicy should only give intellectual satisfaction and not consolation. Without consolation it is harder to accept evil in a universe where it is not necessary.
The Third Principle
If the God of traditional theism decided to create significant beings, beings with unlimited freedom, it follows that He would respect that significance. This leads us to the third principle of the SBT:
P3 God does not enter into the world as an outside agent to compromise significance.
According to this principle the agents in the universe would be natural agents who operate according to the laws of nature. Such agents can be discovered and understood by significant beings. God may also interact with the world but this interaction would have to be understandable by significant beings and not represent a violation of the laws of nature. Further God’s interaction could not compromise human freedom.
This third principle of the SBT stands in contradiction to our ordinary understanding of prayer and miracles. Prayers of petition are usually understood as requests of God that He enter into the world and manipulate it in a way favorable to the petitioner. Miracles are usually understood as examples of God entering in the world and producing a result contrary to the result that natural causes would have produced. To exclude God from this kind of participation in the affairs of man seems to make Him distant and perhaps irrelevant.
Contrary to this apparently obvious charge the SBT holds that prayer is indeed meaningful and miracles do indeed occur. If, as has already been indicated, no evil is incorrigible and unlimited alternatives exist for significant beings then the power for all miracles has already been placed in the universe by God. There is no need for Him to re-enter the world to upgrade its capabilities. According to the SBT however it is necessary for significant beings to tap the unlimited power of the universe and actualize its unlimited potential. This power can be tapped by science and technology. But it can also be tapped in what appear to be more miraculous ways. For example, the mind-body connection is only vaguely understood, yet it is clear that the state of health of the body can be affected by “activities” of the mind and spirit, i.e. humans have the power to strengthen (or weaken) their immune system through thought processes.
The view that I am expressing here allows us to give meaning and substance to basic theistic notions. Among these notions is the feeling that in God there is always hope. We need never despair; we are never alone. If evil were incorrigible then indeed we would be without hope. But according to the SBT everything is possible, and we need never despair. Another basic notion is that God answers all prayers. Usually theists finesse this notion by suggesting that often God’s answer is in the negative, but for our own good. This leaves us with the problem of trying to figure out, for example, how the death of a young mother of two from breast cancer is for anyone’s good. According to the SBT all prayers are answered in the sense that the power to overcome all evil exists in the universe. But prayer can also be seen as producing a positive metaphysical result by tapping into the power that the mind and spirit seem to have over matter. This view would also allow God to respond in an interior way to the person praying, “strengthening” his character without compromising his freedom.
I would like to end this section by mentioning two recent attempts to describe the efficacy of prayer and God’s role in it by appealing to modern science. The physician Larry Dossey in his book called Healing Words (1993:84) describes very serious scientific studies that seem to demonstrate the positive power of prayer. He attempts to account for the non local healing effects of prayer by appealing to what is referred to in Quantum Physics as Bell’s Theorem. Basically, the Irish physicist, John Stewart Bell, was able to show that if distant objects had once been in contact, a change thereafter in one causes an immediate change in the other, no matter how far apart they are. Thus prayer can have a positive effect not only on the person praying but also on the person being prayer for.
The British physicist turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne (1986:70-77), also sees Quantum Physics as presenting us with the possibility of understanding God’s response to prayer. Polkinghorne maintains that the Principle of Indeterminism provides a “window” of opportunity for God to maneuver in the universe without compromising human freedom. Quantum Mechanics states that a causal set of conditions can produce a variety of different effects and that the effect that is actualized in a particular situation is only probabilistically determined. Polkinghorne is suggesting that God could determine the effect that is actualized without transgressing the laws of nature.
These extraordinary attempts to explain religious notions by an appeal to sophisticated scientific concepts have certainly not been corroborated empirically. In fact recent experiments designed to test the efficacy of prayer have had ambiguous results. But they may be indicative of a trend. The antagonism between science and religion, which has existed since the beginning of science and which has currently reached a fever pitch, may not always be the case. In some circles science and religion may be gaining a respect for one another that may lead to some kind of synergistic relationship.
Implications for the Future
Since the SBT suggests that no evil is incorrigible it has extraordinary implications for the future. If we begin to eliminate diseases and protect ourselves from natural disasters we will surely continue to prolong life spans. As that happens the problem of overpopulation will just as surely arise. A glib response would be that given a choice between heart disease, cancer and AIDS on the one hand and overpopulation on the other one would gladly choose the latter. But must overpopulation occur? In many European countries today the number of children being born is below the replacement rate. Human beings can freely decide what an ideal world population would be, given the space and resources available.
In the very distant future the human race can consider moving itself beyond the earth. Astronomers are close to being able to detect earth-like planets in our “neighborhood” of the Milky Way, if they exist. If population becomes a serious problem in the distant future we may indeed have places to go.
As evils continue to be prevented or eliminated cultures will also change and change radically. But is any culture that is based upon the actual existence of evil worth preserving? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we did not need a medical profession, or pharmaceutical companies, or a military? Wouldn’t a society that needs more artists than policemen be preferable to the society that we have now? And what would be wrong with a society in which animal flesh was not used for food? This by the way may happen some day, not because human beings will become concerned about the sufferings of animals, although many will, but because human beings may discover that the consumption of animal flesh is detrimental to long term health. A cosmic approach to human existence allows us to imagine extraordinary possibilities like this for the future.
Finally it might be worth mentioning that the SBT would stand in opposition to the two possible fates of the universe usually offered by cosmologists because they both suggest the actualization of unlimited evil i.e. the destruction of all life and civilization. One possibility is that gravity will recall the galaxies and that all life, all civilization, will be obliterated in a “big crunch.” The other possibility is that gravity will not be able to recall the galaxies and the expansion will continue forever. Eventually the energy in the universe would be stretched to the point that significant activity would cease and the universe would effectively be dead. Now the actualization of unlimited evil is possible according to the SBT, but it cannot be necessary. There must be a way to avoid these two fates. One possibility which has already been mentioned, is that intelligence will be able to figure out how to avoid either fate. Another possibility is that the universe may be so finely tuned that its expansion will continue forever while continually slowing down, reaching some kind of ideal state. This possibility seemed to depend upon the Omega Number being exactly equal to one. The Omega Number is the ratio of the actual energy density of the universe to the critical energy density. If the Omega Number was one it meant that the force of expansion due to the Big Bang was perfectly balanced with the attractive force of gravity. According to contemporary cosmology the Omega Number is thought to be exactly equal to one. However recent astronomy tells us that the expansion of the universe is accelerating rather than slowing down. Some astronomers think that this new evidence is conclusive and that the universe will expand to its death. However that conclusion may be premature. It is possible that the universe will undergo inflationary periods from time to time due to certain conditions but then revert back to an overall deceleration.
The rapid growth in our knowledge of the universe, projected over billions of years, along with the fact that the Omega Number seems to be exactly equal to one suggests that a negative fate for the universe may not be necessary.
In the end the strength of any new theodicy will lie in its ability to respond to the problem of evil as stated at the beginning of this essay and also in its ability to demonstrate its originality. With those points in mind I would like to summarize this essay by listing what I feel are the strengths of the SBT.
- According to the SBT God does allow evil in the sense that He respects the significant beings that he has created, i.e. He respects their freedom. But according to the SBT God never desires that evil actually occur and He has provided significant beings with the powers necessary to effectively deal with any evil. In this way the SBT avoids the obvious contradiction of saying that God is all good and at the same saying that God wills, desires, or causes evil.
- The SBT, by saying that evil serves no positive purpose, is able to maintain a clear distinction between good and evil. This distinction enables significant beings (human beings) to understand clearly how they should behave in the face of evil. Since no evil is ever of any positive value, significant beings should commit themselves to elimination of all evils, from the common cold to cancer, from name calling to genocide. The realization that God does not enter into the world as an outside agent to manipulate it on our behalf only serves to heighten our responsibility for what happens in the world.
- The God of the SBT is not a distant God. Rather He is a God that responds to His creatures by providing them with the powers and possibilities necessary to accomplish anything in this world. Cosmic evolution is the mechanism for the unfolding of creation. It is continual and never ending. God never ceases to be with us.
Yet candor requires that we also admit that God, in creating truly free beings, took the ultimate risk of being. Real freedom allows us to choose against Him and actualize unlimited evil. If we chose to destroy all life on this planet, for example, God would not stop us.
- The SBT differs from the traditional theodicies in crucial ways. It differs from those theodicies that suggest that there really is no evil in the world by accepting the reports of our senses and the testimony of mankind that say otherwise. Secondly the SBT differs from those theodicies that maintain that evil exists but plays a positive role in human life by showing that there is no empirical evidence to support such a view. Positive responses to evil can of course be of enormous value but evil itself is in now way of any positive value.4
- The SBT expands upon the “free will defense,” as ordinarily understood, in the following way. The SBT suggests that freedom is only meaningful if it is unlimited. Limited freedom is seen as fraudulent. With this in mind the SBT argues that human beings do indeed possess unlimited freedom and that therefore no evil is incorrigible, i.e. unlimited freedom involves the power to avoid or eliminate all evils. A free will defense would be incoherent if it allowed that some evil was incorrigible because it would mean that God had created a universe where evil must occur. If this were the case freedom would obviously be compromised and the free will defense would collapse.
- Finally, empirical evidence from contemporary science that the universe possesses unlimited richness and that the human person seems to have an unlimited ability to know and understand it helps to preserve the concept of an omnipotent God. If this universe is the work of a creator then that creator must have the power to produce a universe with unlimited possibilities and unlimited intelligibility. This certainly doesn’t suggest a limited God. The flight to a limited God in the face of evil by some theists was premature and unnecessary.
For as long as gratuitous suffering remains a reality in human life, evil will remain a problem for the theist. But it is no longer necessary for theists to simply throw up their hands and admit defeat, or steadfastly maintain the truth of contradictory statements, or refuse to acknowledge the obvious reports of the senses. Contemporary science suggests an approach to a solution to the problem of evil and that is both ironic and fitting. It is ironic because for the first 300 years of its existence science was seen as antagonistic to belief in the God of traditional theism. It is fitting because, if science is understood in its broad sense as the human effort to know reality, then the search for an understanding of God and the search for an understanding of the universe are joined.
1 Even when evil is an occasion for good it can in no way be seen as the cause of good.
2 The foundation for this theodicy can be found in Bruce Reichenbach’s Evil and a Good God.
3 I am using the following operative definitions. Freedom is the ability to choose from among alternative futures and reason would involve the ability to know alternative futures and how to achieve them.
4 I should also add here that actual evil is not necessary in order to know and appreciate the good. A knowledge of alternative futures and a knowledge of the laws would give us the needed contrast. Nor is evil essential to the acquisition of such knowledge.
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