Friday, June 29, 2012

The Ivory Cubicle | The Problem of Evil Part II

The Ivory Cubicle is a regular Thursday column, but has been delayed this week. It will be back on schedule next week.

I remember the first time I encountered a set of dominoes. They were the white ones with multicolored pips. We had a bunch of fun at my grandparents’ house, lining them up in all sorts of winding patterns, getting some of them to circle back on themselves (I think we even pulled off a spiral once). They were predictable. They were bound to the laws of nature. You hit one, and the next one would fall in a predictable, orderly fashion. And if you set them up again, they’d fall the same way they’d fallen before.

The Domino Effect and the Problem of Evil 

You may have noticed that the approaches to the problem of evil discussed in our post last week require that man has free will. Augustine’s theodicy required man’s ability to twist God’s good world and Plantinga’s defense argued that man’s free will was a higher good than the prevention of evil. But not all philosophers will concede this point. Causal determinists argue that every action a person takes follows necessarily from previous events. For them, human will is like a sequence of dominoes. Certain events happen, they’re picked up by your senses, mental connections are made in your brain, a number of neural dominoes start bumping into each other in your head, and ultimately, one result comes out. There’s no other way that it could have come out, your cosmic neural dominoes don’t have “free will,” they fall just like the laws of nature said they would.

This theory is a critical part of naturalism (the philosophical theory that accompanies mainstream evolution). For naturalists, everything is reducible to matter and it is difficult to find justification for a free will in the material world. That is, if the world really did come from a big explosion of matter, then it would seem like reality works exactly like a giant chain of “domino-matter”– line all the particles up and knock ‘em over. 

Libertarianism (philosophical, not political) on the other hand, argues that the human will acts outside of previously caused events. It is capable of considering those events in making its decision, but it is not constrained by them. But libertarianism requires appealing to something beyond laws of nature for its justification. If matter always falls predictably, then free will can’t be located in matter. It must be located in some immaterial dimension that the soul is a part of, perhaps a realm of the spirit. And once you start talking about a spiritual world, the idea of a God outside of matter doesn’t sound so implausible. It is from this foundation that Plantinga launches his free will defense.

But not all Christians espouse this theory of libertarianism. Some have attempted to reconcile determinism with a form of free will by arguing for what is called compatibilism. For the compatibilists, there are certain “psychological states” in man that cause him to make the decisions he does. These psychological states are unique to him, and “free will” means that his actions are caused by those unique psychological states. A number of Christians have espoused this theory as a solution to theological determinism, or the theory that God has determined every action that would ever occur (John Calvin believed in a variant of this philosophy). 

Christian Determinism and the “Artistic Theodicy” 

Some Christian compatibilists have attempted to reconcile their particular interpretation of “freedom” with the traditional approach to the problem of evil, particularly Augustine’s, with varying degrees of success. Many, however, espoused a different approach to the problem of evil, one that emphasizes God’s role as an artist, and reality is art. It may run something like this.

1). God is an artist.
2). Art requires tension.
3). Therefore, God’s creation requires tension.
4). Tension gives birth to evil.

Under this “artistic theodicy,” calling God the author of evil because of the suffering in this world is like calling Tolkien the author of evil because he created Sauron and made Frodo and Sam go through a long, arduous journey to destroy the ring. God is the author, we are the characters, he’s writing the story, so who are we to complain? 


So we’ve bounced around from the 20th century to the 4th century and back again. Have we solved our problem?

I’m not a terrible fan of determinism, it seems to shift the source of evil squarely back on God. Even if the cosmic dominoes sort of “pass through” the compatibilist’s version of the human will, God is still the person setting up the dominoes to begin with, and thus, he is ultimately responsible for the way they fall.

But the free will defense seems to leave something lacking as well. It doesn’t seem to provide an adequate defense for natural suffering, and seemingly unpredictably bad things that happen to “good people,” while the artistic theodicy seems to answer this question quite well. And while the artistic theodicy is certainly compatible with determinism, I don’t think it requires determinism. In his book Notes from a Tilt-A-Whirl, (reviewed here by yours truly) N.D. Wilson argues that when God spoke His words came to life, with spirit and will of their own. 

I also don’t think portraying God as the author of tension makes him the author of evil. If we draw a distinction between “tension” and “evil,” where tension lacks a moral component (e.g. natural disasters) and evil requires a moral component (e.g.  murder, rape, torture), then Plantinga’s free will defense provides a perfect explanation for the origin of evil in a world of tension. 

To summarize, as a part of God’s created reality, we are free participants in divine art – we are characters in a novel that spans all of human history. As such, we rise, we fall, we err, we succeed, we are locked in a journey from death to life that spans the ages, with a climax at the cross and a resolution in glory, and we do so with a free will that is necessary for us to be truly good. Tension brings us to a point of decision where we must choose between good or evil. And when we fail, God continues to write the story. He causes “all things to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28). What do you think?

Nick Barden is an 8 year Generation Joshua member, college student and philosophy nerd. He dreams of eventually getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, moving to an ivory tower and spending the rest of his days in philosophical bliss. Until then, he spends his days as a staff worker at Gen J annoying Lucas Mason with quotes from random dead white males, philosophizing with Jeremiah Lorrig and attempting to convince Joel to leave his world domination schemes and pursue a life of peace and personal self-satisfaction (so far, no success).  Currently he is confined to his cubicle: The Ivory Cubicle.
Posted by Nick Barden


  1. I've been thinking a lot about the Free will vs. Determinism subject a LOT lately, so thanks for laying it all out like this. I'm looking forward to reading future articles in this series. Keep up the good work.

  2. So you are saying evil is the result of God creating "tension." That still drops the "blame" for evil in God's lap, merely removing it by one degree from him.

  3. Thanks ransomedbyone! It's definitely been a blast to write these.

    Michael, I don't think that it does. It's the difference between doing and allowing. Arguing that God creates an environment where human character can fail of his own will is different from arguing that God causes humans to fall. If God is the author of a reality which contains evil, there's really only two options. Either God is the author of evil, or God is the author of an environment where evil could arise. Scripture denies the first, so we must move to the second. Now, the extent to which that environment allows for the emergence of evil is a point of contention, but I don't think that arguing for "tension" is the same as making him author of evil.

  4. "Have we solved our problem?" No! Are we "part of God’s created reality" and how can we be sure? We can't. That is the problem. What is certain is that the Promise of the Incarnation remains unrealized. If God works through his will, and that 'will' has been explained to humanity via a 'faith' in theological process which has self evidently failed to deliver on the promise, the problem is with faith.

    The question which resolves the theodicy question is one that few dare ask. Could two thousand years of scholastic exegesis, tradition and 2 billion 'Christians' have it wrong? Is theology even a valid human intellectual endeavor or just a reflection of a profound dishonesty and vanity innate to human nature? Maybe 'all is chasing after wind'

  5. It's a pretty strong statement to claim certainty that the Promise of the Incarnation remains unrealized. Perhaps it is unrealized by many, but that's exactly what you'd expect if Christian theodicy is true.

    But since you brought certainty into the equation, and pitted it against faith, I guess it's worth asking what we're supposed to do when we come to the far reaches of human reason. Particularly when we must wrap our minds around dozens of problems that present themselves in a godless worldview. For one, there's definitely the fact that reality looks like art, so when the question of origins comes up, it seems more reasonable to submit to the author in faith, instead of pursuing something that will satisfy our demand for an unattainable “certainty”. As the pillar of modern rationalist thought David Hume once said, reason has an uncanny way of following passions into all sorts of sophistry and rationalization. Perhaps the true vanity is man's unbending faith in his ability to rationalize, not his submission to God.

  6. Very good thoughts. Is it possible for us to simply say that 1) we have a choice between God and His will (good) and "not God" (evil) so 2), when we choose the "not God" option, evil manifests itself?