Saturday, May 23, 2009

God and Evil

Sorry for the delay in postings but life got busy, hopefully back on track now for one or two posts a month. This past week I was hanging out with my cousin Krishna and a few other people and as usual we engage in conversations about religion, God and problems of evil. My mind has been reflecting on these topics for quite a while and so I decided to post on it. As many critical thinkers of religion and Atheism, my cousin brings up the ancient problem of Theodicy, the Problem of God. Well literally it is Theos (God) Dike (justice), the justice of God. Basically the problem is summed up as thus, if there is a God then why is there suffering and evil in the world. The argument is that how can a perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, just and benevolent Deity exist if there is a world full of suffering, pain and evil. How does one explain that an infant is born with disorders, diseases and such if they haven't done anything wrong? How can one justify a God when we have genocide and heinous evils like Rwanda, world hunger, infanticide and so on? How can God/gods allow this?

Now, to adequetely deal with this age old issue, one must set certain perimeters in which to allow the discussion to flow. First is what is the Nature of God? What qualities does God/gods possess? What is the nature of the world in regards to good, evil and God? One can spend an entire corpus of writings to deal with this topic but I will focus on three frameworks, the view of God and nature via Christian belief system and the view of God and Nature within the Hindu and Buddhist system.

Accounting for the various strands of Christianity, I will narrow my focus on to the generally accepted ideas amongst the branches of Christianity in regards to God, evil and the world. In the Christian conception of God, God is omnipotent, omniscient, all benevolent, all good and just. He is the God of justice and fairness. In this framework, the individual soul is only born once and joined with a body, at which point it is endowed with absolute free-will, which is a gift from God. Since God is all good, he cannot be the source of evil. God is omniscient so he clearly knows about every instance and moment of suffering and evil. God is also omnipotent so he must necessarily have the power to change it. God is also all-benevolent, meaning He wants the best for all beings and wants to ensure all beings are happy so He has the will or intent to do so. In the words of David Hume, "Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?"

Hume poses the right questions and the right forum for discussion. If God is truly omniscient then he knows all things at all times at all places. He knows evil and injustice even before it happens in our frame of time. Knowing all that and assuming he is omnipotent, meaning he can change all things, it is straightforward that he can prevent evil even before it occurs. Now, one can say that he might not wish to change things and is a passive God without the will to make things good and just. If that is the case then the discussion ends there, God is all powerful and knowing but cares not change things for whatever reason. He is then not benevolent, which would make him no different than the Devil. One may say that evil then is the product of man and cannot be imputed upon God but then the premise of the Christian world view that we only have one life and God put us here for a reason fundamental implies that God then capriously allows certain beings to experience more evil and injustice than others. If that is the case then God is the God of at least some evil as he puts beings into existence for the sole reason to allow evil to happen. Babies born with AIDS or Cancer are born so because of their genetics or other factors which are beyond the control of humans, i.e. remain the realm of Nature, the power of God. Some will argue that such things should not be asked as we can never know the Mind of God and God has a greater plan for us all. That still avoids the fundamental question, evil exists because God allows it to and if he allows it to then being the All-powerful and all-knowing God he is responsible for it and because he allows babies and other such beings to experience pain, suffering and evil for no reason implies he is unjust, so that cannot be it.

If God is just, omnipotent and omniscient then where is evil? Theoritically speaking at this point it should not. Adding to this God's benevolence further eliminates the probability of evil existing yet it still does. Therefore, such a God in such a world view cannot survive the test of either reality or non-contradiction. Now this is a very rudimentary discussion, there are numerous rationales put forth but for this blog it is beyond the scope. Essentially, either the Christian view of God or the Christian view of reality, one life and one chance at redemption is wrong. Now there is an another way to deal with this quagmire and that is one of the eastern conceptions.

The Hindu/Buddhist basic conception of reality is that we are not created by any Deity or Deities but have always existed and will always exist (Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism posit that nothing truly exists and all things are illusion especially the idea of individuality, but that is a different discussion and even assuming that view is correct it would not change anything at the phenomenal level). All beings exist in a cycle known as samsara, a cycle of birth, death and rebirth. They exist in this cycle since before our conceptions of time and will always continue to do so unless they break the cycle. Good and Evil only have relevance while we remain in samsara, hence they only should be discussed in that context. We are born and reborn based on our own intentions and actions, EVERY single thing we do and think has consequence. The idea is that beings experience evil or good in their lives because of something they have done before, that is known as the law of Karma. We may not have recollection of the wrongs or rights we have committed in the past but we do suffer those consequences. A baby is born with some disease or problem not because God wills it to be thus but because of something that it has done in a previous life. One may disagree with my premise that rebirth is a reality and that is a rational disagreement since it is not a proven reality but if one is interested in the rational basis for such a belief from an empirical perspective then read Dr. Ian Stevenson and his case study on 20 cases for reincarnation. I would take it one step further and state if a omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent and just God exists then rebirth must also be a reality. For only rebirth allows for each and everyone of those above qualities of God to exist without contradiction.

Rebirth highlights two of the most difficult questions that I posed above in the section on Christian vision of God. Rebirth is a reality if God is just and benevolent because it solves both of those problems without contradiction. The Law of Karma adequately answers the dilemma of a just God because the system of Karma is absolutely impartial and only doles out just consequences over the course of one's timeless existence. Evil isn't created or by God in this case it is entirely a product of our actions. This flows right into the next point, the benevolence of God. The idea of rebirth allows infinite lifetimes of opportunities for individuals to break free from samsara more accurately put it is an infinite number of chances for beings to discover that they are really not bound to samsara and it is only all merely a dream based on our attachments to the universe. It can be said that God is infact belligerent because no one knows what wrong they did previously to incur the troubles, evils and injustice we experience currently. Only God knows the previous lives and basis for our problems today but we don't, he is a sadistic voyeur. This misses the point, here is an analogy assume a man murders someone but in the process of killing that person he loses his memory. Does his lack of knowledge of his prior acts excuse those acts? Should he still not be held liable for his actions? Should he not suffer or repay those actions? I believe the answer is yes, similarly that is the same situation with rebirth. We are merely not cognizant of our prior actions but still responsible for them. The Omnipotent and Omniscient God exists as that law of Karma and rebirth, in and through God do those laws issue out and operate. It is also a testament to God's benevolence and justice that the individual is not only given one chance to discover the path out of samsare and bonded existence. As Krishna says in the Gita, he is impartial to everyone and no one is more dearer or distant to him than anyother. Now, the Buddhist view is only slightly different in that there is no ultimate God who is beyond all of this but the law of Karma and rebirth are merely just law of nature/existence just like gravity and so on, a God is not required. The goal of existence is the annilation or nirodha or non-movement i.e. cessation of all phenomenal existence. It is called nirvana or the blowing out of all attachments. Now, various schools of Buddhism have different views of Buddha as either just the most important being to have discovered this reality or Buddha as the equivalent of the Hindu vision of God or Brahman.

Now, in Hinduism God truly encompasses and is beyond such conceptions. Good and Evil exist within Him/Her but is not bound by them. The Hindu Conception of God is a Deity is all things and in all things. Good and Evil come from God insofar as they are mechanisms and relevant only through rebirth and Karma. Even more, the only actor and action is God, all beings are ultimately only machinations of God to express his infinitude. Good and Evil are only relevant as long as one is tied to this existence, just as the actions and morality that we experience in this life are only relevant here and not in our dreams and vice versa. Now my cousin says that this view of God is merely the equivalent of the Force and ultimately is the same as saying that God is nothing because if God is everything then God is nothing also because nothing is there to differentiate him from other things. In part he is correct, the Upanishads (Kena) make a key point in reference to God:
"That which cannot be apprehended by the mind, but by which, they say, the mind is apprehended,That alone know as Brahman and not that which people here worship"

The God of the Upanishads is the Sum Bonum of all and it is for this reason God is referred to as "Satyam Jnanam Anandam Brahma" or Reality, Consciousness and Bliss is Brahman (God). All that can be ascribed to our existence and reality is but a portion of reality of that Being it is also why they say that all the known universes are but a portion of Him and he exists beyond it all. Sorry about the long post but just some food for thought.


as715 said...

All we can know is that it is "not this, not this."

Ryan Seeley said...

Great post!

The only thing I might add, would be that as a catholic christian, this post highlights (theo)logically the absolute necessity for purgatory, i.e. that following this life those with unclean souls be purged of sin; and also the necessity for heaven to be a more than perfect existence (i.e. better than that provided for in Eden).

Restated, the problem is especially clear when considering those innocents who die or suffer without transgression - for example an aborted human being (i.e. fetus). And as a corollary, it could be said that since this world is less than perfect, by merely existing any innocent are made to suffer unjustly. Hence the equally important concept that, if God be at least just, then heaven must in every sense be a better existence than than Eden would have been.

Thus, if Eden can be said to have a been a perfect existence for humans, heaven must then be better than Eden. And so God's justice abounds since although we are "unjustly" made to suffer this existence, we thereby attain a greater existence/unification with God by being able to enter into the highest existence with God in heaven. But yet another problem arises since most Christian theologians would hold that heaven is infinitely better than existing in Eden undisturbed. This being that God is too good, and gives too much of an award.

At this point I must disclaim that much of this was largely already addressed in part by C.S. Lewis in "The Problem of Pain" where he restates the problem as follows "If God were good, He would make His creatures perfectly happy, and if He were almighty He would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both."
I will not recite that work here but will offer the following from its conclusion:

"[If you] [t]ry to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve . . . you will find that you have excluded life itself. [Thus what remains to be explained is] how, perceiving a suffering world, and being assured, on quite different grounds, that God is good, we are to conceive that goodness and that suffering without a contradiction, [only] an exploration of God's goodness might provide an answer."

Thus we must meditate on God's goodness to find our answer.

Dan C said...

Excellent summation! What is the argument for the necessity of a deity? Is it only a relative truth?