Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Freewill Defense (St. Augustine of Hippo): Part 2

Natural Evil and the Principle of Plenitude

Freewill can explain the presence of moral evil in the world (this being brought about by human mis-choices), but what about the seemingly vast amount of natural evil* present in the world (e.g. earthquakes, tornadoes, disease etc.)? 

Following a literal reading of Genesis 3, natural evil can be considered something which occurred due to the sin of Adam:

"To Adam he said, 'Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, 'You must not eat of it,' 'Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field.' " (Genesis 3:17f)

However, for Augustine the presence of natural evil in the world was explained by something called the PRINCIPLE OF PLENITUDE.

The principle of plenitude begins by showing how the universe exhibits great diversity. For instance, we look around us and see tremendous differences in the quality and character of all things. Yet the question begs (for Augustine) as to why there is such diversity, and why there seems to be so much inequality and unfairness? For instance, some creatures live short and harsh lives while others live long and pleasant lives. Furthermore, why were humans created with the capacity to sin (and thus break their relationship with God and bring about moral corruption)? Why weren’t they created perfect instead? As the theologian John Hick suggests, 'why... is there a world rather than only the highest of heavens'? Why didn’t God simply create a heaven on earth?

Taking his lead from Plato's Timaeus, Augustine argues that all creatures were brought into existence so that 'the whole range of Eternal Ideas should become incarnated in the world of sense' (Hick). In other words, the heavens and the earth are perfect because they contain such a diverse ranges of things in them, and without this the fullness of God's creativity would not be expressed.

Is this as good as it gets?

Logically what follows from this is that from the human point-of-view, a diverse world/universe is there simply for our enjoyment and benefit (anthropocentrism). Of course, many modern day ecologists are generally unhappy to place humans at the top of the creative 'tree', especially at the expense of recognising the intrinsic value in both the environment and non-humans species. Most people are also unwilling to see the world as simply the 'servant' (and server) of humanity. So the idea that there are many diverse species (and things) in the world to make the world more interesting for those who can appreciate it, does not seem to fit into the modern view of things.

A further problem is that if a diverse world is an expression of Divine creativity in all its fullness, only limited by what God could logically do or has conceived of doing, then if this world is 'perfect', then 'we have no recourse left but to despair' (Leibniz), for we can imagine a significantly better world than this. For instance, we can imagine a world where there is no evil and suffering (or even significantly less than what there is). Of course, if we can imagine a better world than this one then either this world is not perfect or God has limited ability (or vision) in what counts as perfection compared to us.

The Sovereignty of God

In response to charges such as these, Augustine would argue that although the world looks imperfect to us, this is because we are seeing things from a limited (or distorted) perspective. From the standpoint of God, all things are good. Even the apparent evil in the world contributes to making everything perfect. In other words, all degrees of good and evil have a place in the Divine Will and order of things. This means evil and suffering are not 'wasteful' by-products of the world and the universe, but things God uses to bring about a greater good.

So any concern we have with evil and suffering is merely relative to our own viewpoint ('the universe with its sinister aspect is perfect' (Hick p.84)). If we could only see things as God does, we would be less concerned about the child dealing with cancer, or the baby born with AIDS. If evil and suffering were out of God's control, then God's sovereignty would be questioned. Events would have transpired such than an all-powerful Deity, were not in control of things.

For Augustine, the idea that God is not in control of everything is anathema. His theodicy is designed to protect not only God's sovereignty, but also God's perfect goodness. If the world were out of control, then God could not really be said to be all-good (benevolent). Also, as far as the natural order is concerned, death and destruction are a necessary part of things. Without them, there would be no way new life could emerge.

"Some perish to make way for others that are born in their room, and the less succumb to the greater, and the things that are overcome are transformed into the quality of those that have the mastery, this is the appointed order of things transitory. Of this order the beauty does not strike us because by our mortal frailty we are so involved in a part of it, that we cannot perceive the whole, in which these fragments that offend us are harmonised with the most accurate fitness and beauty." (Augustine)

A perfect world?

So with all this in mind we might be tempted to think that the world and the universe are perfect? For if all things find their place in God's grand scheme of things (including evil and suffering), then surely we no longer need to be concerned about the so-called ‘problem’ of evil, for evil is simply another facet of goodness? Augustine's response to this would be to say no; real evil really does exist! There are things in this world, and things people do, which God definitely desires not to happen. However, evil does not (and cannot be allowed to) upset the moral order of things. Moral evil, for instance, does not upset the moral order of creation, for sin will always be punished by God. However we should heed Hick’s warning here, that:

"A universe in which sin exists but is precisely cancelled out by retribution is no less good than a universe in which there is neither sin nor punishment." (John Hick)

This still leaves the question-begging, that if 'evil' is ultimately something 'good' then why does God punish sinners?

Although sin is a blemish on God's creation, God allows sin (and sinners) to remain in the world for the time being. Of course, this raises the question that if God has preordained sin to be a part of the world (and human experience), then surely God is responsible for the presence of sin and moral evil in the world? Taken a stage further we might also venture to suggest that God’s Sovereignty leads Augustine to surmise that based on the the evidence God has chosen (or predestined) only some of humanity to be saved (i.e. become Christians), with the vast majority of humankind dammed? So although Augustine denies that sin has an independent existence apart from God and is merely the privation of the good, it seems that if not people will enter heaven then evil does have an independent existence apart from God after all.

Some further issues

Augustine's theodicy has been largely adopted by the Western Church and has become the go-to theodicy with regard to addressing the problem of evil and suffering. The key idea is that God is in control of everything, but not the free choices of free agents (such as humans and angels). However, what does it mean to say we are created with free will? For instance, in critiquing Augustine, John Hick argues whether the angels are truly capable of sinning ('If the angels are finitely perfect, then even though they are in some sense free to sin they never will, in fact, do so' (Hick))? If a perfect being sins then surely, as Hick argues, they were not perfect in the first place, and God is to be held accountable as their Maker?

Of course, Augustine held that God created the angels (and humanity) in the full knowledge that some would fall (sin), even though it was never God's desire for them to do so. So although God is our Creator, and although God knew that some of God's created beings would sin, God is once again absolved from blame (as far as Augustine is concerned), because God did not force any of them to make these (free) choices.

But once again we return to the matter of whether God is responsible for the presence of evil and suffering in the world. For if God created beings God knew would sin, yet chose some of them to remain good without transgressing their free will (such as the angels), then why not keep all of them from sinning? And if God is able to save some of humanity (without transgressing their free will), why not save all of humanity?

Finally, we are led to ask if God is able to prevent evil and suffering from occurring in the world or not? Augustine tends towards a rather impotent view of God, one who sits back and takes credit for all things that happen in the world as these are an expression of the Divine Will, but one who also appears morally dubious when we consider the horrendous acts of evil and suffering that have taken place.

"While there is still time, I hasten to protect myself, and so I renounce the higher harmony altogether. It's not worth the tears of that one tortured child who beat itself on the breast with its little fist and prayed in its stinking outhouse, with its unexpiated tears to 'dear, kind God'! It's not worth it, because those tears are unatoned for. They must be atoned for, or there can be no harmony... I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket." (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)


* Natural evil is associated with things such as earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and other similar types of events, which are although not directly caused by humans, may cause them harm and suffering. Natural evil is contrasted with moral evil, which are things humans deliberately do to cause suffering (E.g. murder, rape etc.).

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