Notes on Evil in Modern Thought (2002) by Susan Nieman
Chapter One "Fire from Heaven" (1-36)
Evil cannot be defined as merely the consequence of crime or unfortunate events. Evil shakes our faith in the order of the universe:
Alfonso X (1252) of Castile, after poring over Ptolemy's highly complicated mathematical defense of the earth centered model of the universe (replete with epicycles, equants, and retrograde motion), declared, "If I had been of God's counsel at the creation, many things would have been ordered better." (15)
Job's misfortunes were not considered unfair until the Enlightenment. Many commentators identified with Job who found no justification for his miseries. Previously, commentators had justified his torments as the result of secret guilt on his part or as a trial of faith that would be rewarded later. (Kant suggested that these theodicy makers were writing in hopes of pleasing the deity, as if God were eavesdropping, not for selfless, purely good reasons.)
Christian Justice: How can we justify the suffering of innocents?
Job is the question and Jesus is the answer.
God himself took on as cruel a punishment as any human ever suffered, made all the crueler by his utter innocence, and still he offers redemption. (18)
Leibniz's argument: Anyone who thinks God could have made the world better and did not, thinks God is not as good as he could be.
Bayle's retort to Leibniz' theodicy: Any God who could have created a better world and did not is a criminal himself.
Bayle's Philosophical Dictionary (1697) (See Bayle on the problem of evil in Stanford Philosophical Dictionary)
For Bayle, even the torments of the damned proved a stumbling block to the Christian justification of suffering. The problem of evil is unresolved by a God who judges his creation to be sinful and then tortures the vast majority of his children for eternity. Can there be any justice in eternal and infinite suffering?
Even worse, to protect the conception of God's omnipotence, Calvinists believed the number of the damned to far exceed the saved. The elect had been determined at the beginning of time. Nothing you could do would change that fate.
So torture without limit falls on unbaptized babies, and the being responsible for this crime is the creator whom we are bound to revere?
For Bayle, the mixture of happiness and suffering, wickedness and virtue present in the world made Manichaeism seem a more reasonable explanation for the presence of evil than the idea of God as both omnipotent and beneficent.
Manicheans believe that the world is ruled by separate good and evil principles. In this way, God's beneficence is preserved but his omnipotence is limited. Experience teaches the Manichean that God is good but limited: some order exists but also some other aspects of reality possess no rhyme or reason. In this view of the universe, human reason seems to possess more sense and order than the world.
Leibniz attempted to rescue reason and reconcile it with faith in the face of our own experience of disorder.
He asserted that this is the best of all possible worlds:
Metaphysical evil (rents in the structure of the universe) is dispelled because God could not have created the universe in any other way and remain benevolent; therefore, any other potential universe would have been worse than the one in which we exist. God did the best he could with the physical materials of matter and the temporal structure of reality.
Natural evil is the pain and suffering we experience in the world.
Moral evil is the crime for which natural evil must be the certain and inevitable punishment.
So, the Lisbon Earthquake may not have been the direct result of the sins committed by the people who lived there, but this type of natural chaos is the direct result of human causes.
Leibniz posited a causal link between moral evil and natural evil. In so doing, he concurred with the Christian conception of the Fall. Eden had been constructed in a way which correlates to human conceptions of a justly designed universe: in Eden there was no hunger, no pain in child birth, no death, no shame, no confusion. The story about the apple asserts that there is a link between human choice and natural evil, between sin and suffering. Thereby, a framework for understanding human misery was created.
Leibniz argued that the causal links between sin and suffering would become clearer with time through our application of reason to the mysterious physical properties of the universe. Leibniz echoes the response God gave Job in the whirlwind. This world is only part of a vast universe. However, we have made great strides towards understanding God's design as well as reducing the chaos and suffering caused by our sins. Leibniz believed that the discovery of the calculus would allow disagreements to be resolved through calculation. So Alfonso's complaints against God would dissipate once he was enlightened by the discoveries of Copernicus and Kepler.
(Note, however, that Leibniz's God has been disempowered and is becoming a God created in our own image. Leibniz's God is subject to reason. It had been for this reason that the Church fathers had originally rejected reason. The process of supplanting God has begun.)
During the Enlightenment, faith in science supported faith in God. Every new discovery seemed to prove the argument for the existence of God according to the orderly and harmonious design of the universe. The evidence for the existence of God is nothing less than the whole of creation itself: shot through with design that could not have originated by accident. Consider the structure of our hands or our eyes. Consider the elegance of the mathematics we can use to understand and predict the motions of the planets. Intricate design requires a designer. The discovery of order in the universe also provided evidence of the fit between reason in human minds and the rational structure of the universe. (29)
The notices that God has been pleased to give us of himself are so many and so obvious in the constitution, order, beauty, and harmony of the several parts of the world, in the form and structure of our own bodies and the wonderful powers and faculties of our souls, in the unavoidable apprehensions of our own minds and the common consent of all other men, in everything within us and everything without us, that no man of the meanest capacity and greatest disadvantages whatsoever, with the slightest and most superficial observation of the works of God and the lowest and most obvious attendance to the reason of things, can be ignorant of Him; but he must be utterly without excuse. (Samuel Clarke, Newton's expositor)
So Leibniz rebuts Bayle by arguing that Bayle demands too much: a detailed explanation of how evil is connected to the best possible scheme of the universe. A complete explanation is an unreasonable demand. However, optimism existed that a "Newton of the mind" would eventually arrive. This Newton would answer Alfonso's objection that God's design is flawed. Suffering would be revealed to be the effect of some sin. Moreover, suffering would be shown to be the cause of greater good. The network of causality between the physical and the moral universe would be seamless. This Newton would not remove God's presence by reducing spirit to a soul-less mechanism, but would testify to it. People feared an incompetent or malevolent God. The idea that a mechanical universe would be absent God was not obvious.
Far from simply affirming
Leibniz's well rounded orthodoxies, Pope's poem actually undermines them.
All Nature is but Art, unknown
At first reading, Pope seems to assert the unbroken goodness of Creation as it stands and the existence of an order beyond appearances which assures that unbroken goodness.
However, Voltaire recognized the subversiveness of this idea. If whatever is, is right, there is no room for original sin or for the intervention of Providence itself. Pope's real purpose was to remind us of how little we understand. Like Bayle, Pope denied that we can understand the order of the universe and thought it foolish and arrogant to try. However, Pope does suggest that some aspects of the problem of evil might be within our reach.
Know thyself, presume not God
Instead of asking metaphysical questions beyond our comprehension, Pope, like the Sophists, argued that we should focus instead on what we can do to make the world a better place. Pope signals a shift of focus from God's nature and responsibilities to our own. In so doing, he began to push the problem of evil out of the realm of theology and into the realm of ethics and psychology. By understanding ourselves, our passions and our possibilities, we will focus on those aspects of the problem of evil that we may hope to effect. Final causes cannot be known:
A man who thinks all the world exists for his benefit is no better that the pampered goose who believes that the farmer who fattens him exists for his.
Thinking in terms of final causes leads to rebellion and despair. We are outraged when we discover that the world is not made just to suit our purposes. However, to recognize that the universe is not created for our needs is not to say that the universe is indifferent to them. Pope believed that our own self-love is inherently social and acting virtuously is natural. What's needed to create the best of all possible worlds are not prayers and threats but self-knowledge and reformed social arrangements.
Kant in his early writings compared Rousseau to Newton. Rousseau had justified God and proven Pope's thesis to be true. By linking moral and natural evil in comprehensible terms, he refuted the objections of Alfonso and the Manicheans more powerfully than Leibniz had. Pope had argued that human psychology explains moral evil but that natural evil is inexplicable. Pressed, Leibniz argued that the physical accidents that sometimes occur are the unfortunate effects of the general laws which give the world order and allow us to orient ourselves in it. (Rain creates the harvest but may ruin a picnic.)
Rousseau argued that all natural accidents are morally neutral: neither good nor bad: they are amoral. Here we have the modern distinction between natural and moral evil. The cosmic order is meaningless. Human choices though, like building flimsy overcrowded structures along the fault lines where earthquakes are bound to occur, exacerbate suffering. Metaphysical evil cannot be addressed: there is an afterlife where reward and punishment are addressed; otherwise, the miseries of life would be unbearable.
Moral evil, though, can be addressed: Original sin does not exist. Here Rousseau rejects Leibniz's doctrine of optimism: evil is good misunderstood? Then why do anything about it? Why try to understand it and thereby eliminate it? (Quietism)
St. Augustine's doctrine of original sin asserted that disobedience is just as bad as the punishment it incurred. God's benevolence did not cause evil. We did. The gift of free will was abused, but God responded not just with punishment but with the possibility of redemption.
Rousseau offers a natural explanation for the Fall. We are not perverse, merely mistaken. Knowledge is needed, not penance. Freedom has conditions that must be understood. Over time human nature has been altered. (The Doctrine of Original Sin asserts that our natures were altered only once.) For Rousseau, evil is an historical phenomenon. Evil derives from human psychology (the choices we make) and is compounded over time by human history. Evil can be eradicated if its historical development is understood. History is not determined. The connection between moral and natural evil is not punishment and does not require a miracle to be overcome. God's benevolence is affirmed.
Rousseau's Second Discourse is his diagnosis and Emile is his prescription.
The noble savage, though free of evil and suffering in the state of nature, came to spawn the wretched creatures who pass for civilized humanity. All the vices that currently plague civilization developed from relatively few initial mistakes: vanity led to alienation and overtime snowballed into systems of artifice and injustice. Evil derives from a collective process, not the individual will. Evil is contingent and comprehensible. Evil is extrinsic and not innate.
Initially, history began with humans in isolation: savages gathered food, met to reproduce, and then scattered. Mothers cared for their offspring until they could fend for themselves. This isolation ended when environmental conditions forced solitary nomads into tribes who shared labor and land.
The Fall occurred as the result of erotic desire for the other's desire. Over time sexual competition led to self-consciousness over appearance and produced the alienation from our nature which is the source of evil.
The discoveries of iron and wheat led to the division of labor and private ownership of land. Most evils are a part of a world we have ruined and could again come to control. Ruin, once begun, comes with great speed. Once these processes had begun, the development of civilization and misery became inevitable.
Rousseau thus proposes a natural connection between sin and suffering that requires no intervention from a God who has arranged the world so that justice is a part of the natural order. Misdeed and misery are internally interrelated. Understood rightly, evil is not even tempting. Gathering wealth, for instance, forces the rich man immediately to deny others' claims and isolate himself in boredom and fear. Goodness is rewarded with pleasure, not in moral but in sensual terms. Virtue and happiness are causally connected. Death itself is not an evil. Loss of freedom brings more horror than loss of life. The fact that we do not live forever is no more of an evil than the fact that we do not have wings.
Rousseau designs an education meant to undo the processes which have introduced evil into the world.
(Note: Providence is no longer supernatural but natural.)
Properly managed, freedom, reason and sexuality can be molded to form human beings more noble than anything possible even in the state of nature. (God be praised.) (50-51)
What Christianity blamed for our disaster, sex and knowledge, can be used to overcome it. Self-knowledge alone can save us. Viewing ourselves through others' opinions perpetuates alienation and vanity. We can learn to distinguish these false needs from true ones and achieve self-reliance: thinking for oneself.
no reading until age 12
culture and sexuality are born at the same moment: the natural sex drive can be turned into a search for the ideal erotic object which can dissolve the link between self interest and vanity.
Instead of grace, Emile is offered love: Sophia.
Rousseau's Newtonian Characteristics:
Emile is a thought experiment ala Newton's: Rousseau chooses as his subject an average boy with ordinary intelligence and talent. Therefore, whatever works in his case should work for anybody.
Rousseau links child raising and the political role just as Newton links earthly and celestial motion.
Like Newton, Rousseau seeks to uncover the hidden laws of human nature and in so doing justify Providence. Even so, by positing the natural causes and consequences of sin, he might eliminate the need for any supernatural authority.
What we need to find our way is Emile's narrator: the perfect tutor. For Emile's experiential education to be accomplished, the teacher's lessons must never seem arbitrary, must never appear to dictate behavior. Instead, the connection between the child's action and the consequence of reward or punishment must always be clear. To allow this process to unfold, though, the tutor must manipulate reality so that all constraints present the appearance of natural necessity. Otherwise, the connection between cause and effect must always be clear.
Thus far in the history of ideas we have noticed that even though God's role in the world seems to be decreasing, the fundamental association between human sin and human suffering remained strong.
However, it can be argued that the connection between sin and pain, between virtue and pleasure is not clear. Does it really exist in the natural world? Rousseau would argue that these connections are no longer clear because we exist in a corrupted environment.
Another thinker might ask if the natural world and man really were made for each other. If not, it can be argued that there is no divine purpose, only human adaptation over time to an arbitrary flow of environmental phenomena.
The World As It Is vs. The World As It Is Perceived
Enlightenment philosophy ignored what Kant emphasizes: the finitude of human knowledge.
Human understanding is entangled with the conditions in which we perceive the world: space, time, and reason.
Human perception is also limited by human senses. Pure intellectual intuition, the mission of Plato, is not possible. Unmediated perception of reality is not possible. We are forced to perceive the world with the apparatus and the programming of the human body: our senses and our reason.
Our senses severely limit our understanding of the world around us, and our minds must use rational conceptions of space and time, the linkage between cause and effect, and distinctions between good and evil to give order to our already limited access to the world as it is.
Evil can be understood as human finitude. Humans may conceive of their lives as having a purpose, but neither the world nor humanity has any meaning which is accessible to human reason.
For Kant, no natural connection between virtue and happiness can be proven, no clear connection between moral evil and natural evil exists. Happiness can be measured in pleasure, but pleasure is bound by the physical world. Happiness is one thing, but virtue might be something altogether different. Virtue may extend beyond nature and reason. For Kant, reason always considers what ought to be, but nature is concerned with what is. Tragedy explores the ways virtue and happiness fail to rhyme.
To seek an answer to the problem of evil is futile because our ignorance is complete. Questions about God and his purposes, the nature and sense of the Creation, the origin of evil, are all out of bounds. To answer them requires understanding which transcends human reason. To seek a rational answer to the problem of evil is a futile and dangerous attempt to be God.
Attempts to overcome human finitude are senseless railings in hope of achieving a dream so far beyond possibility that we cannot even imagine the shape such a human might take. (vs. Leibniz who believed that human knowledge was only limited by time.)
Beyond these epistemological grounds for rejecting the traditional questions of metaphysics are deeper moral grounds for refusing to do so.
Kant believed that understanding the causal connections between happiness and virtue would be morally disastrous. We would no longer be able to act freely, to be righteous only for the sake of righteousness. The wicked would be punished, the innocent unharmed, the good rewarded. In short, justice would be achieved, for a systematic connection between moral choice and physical nature would be established.
Yet, knowing exactly what we should do in any given situation would confine our freedom, not liberate it. Our every action would be mechanical and determined. (instrumentalized action) We would lose responsibility for our actions if, like God, we were omniscient and omnipotent. A morally transparent world precludes the possibility of morality.
True moral action, true virtue, is a leap into the unknown without the benefit of complete confidence in our rectitude and without the reinforcement of sure reward. It is an act taken on faith. Freedom entails acting without sufficient knowledge or power, without omniscience or omnipotence. "Our faith is not scientific, and thank heaven it is not."
Theodicy (seeking justice from God) can tend towards blasphemy and idolatry if we, in our ignorance, absolve ourselves of the responsibility to take moral action. (moral quietism) If we abandon ourselves to the praise of God's omnipotence and our own absolute insignificance, we come close to performing a ceremony of appeasement: flattering an all powerful being in the hope that he will reward mindless submission. We would again be seeking an instrumental means of being holy. (69-70)
Goodness is genuine only if it is done for goodness' sake. Attempts to give extrinsic reasons for virtue not only weaken virtue; they destroy its very essence.
There is no direct connection between virtue and happiness. Happiness is a desire of reason. Attempting virtuous deeds only makes us worthy of happiness.
For Rousseau, virtue is the natural cause of happiness. Kant insists that the consequences of virtue are uncertain and beyond rational understanding. Only truth justifies and consoles. The finitude of human reason and the unpredictable contingencies which present themselves in reality make any prediction of the result of a given cause unprovable. The gaps between our purposes and an indifferent nature leave reality with an almost unacceptable structure.
(Example: It would be a mistake to lie to save a friend because the consequences of our actions are beyond our understanding or control. Only the act itself is free and therefore possesses moral value.)
The Categorical Imperative:
determination to trace the ways that we forget our finitude was matched only
by his awareness that such forgetting is unavoidable. We long to overcome
finitude and be like God. While rejecting every comparison between ourselves
and God in the theoretical realm, Kant determined to shape us in God's image
in the practical realm.
Act as though the principle of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.
Every time we face a moral dilemma, we are to imagine ourselves re-enacting the Creation. What choices would we make if we were all Gods and had just been given a chance to create the best of all possible worlds?
For instance, a man is reduced to complete despair but still possesses his reason. Should he decide to commit suicide? Kant suggests that we make the consequence of this choice into a natural law like gravity. Should we shorten life when a longer life span threatens more evil than satisfaction? That is unimaginable. The world would quickly self-destruct.
Hobbes' world of perpetual destruction would, if it became a principle of nature, quickly self-destruct. However, a world in which people never help each other could function, but would it be the best of all possible worlds a creative God could invent? If, though, God were to actually create a world in which moral principles became sovereign law, moral principles would lose all connection with freedom.
So, we do not want God to create the world we long for, but we want to be able to imagine it often, and you can consider the redesign of the world in which you live every time you decide something important.
Kant's paradoxical conception of the human situation:
He condemns our wish to be God, yet he suggests that it is a wish that we cannot extinguish. We recognize radical finitude, yet long for transcendence We are not God, yet we should act as if we were about to create reality in each moral dilemma
Kant Rescues Science from Hume's Radical Empiricism:
Purposiveness is a fundamental feature of nature. Miraculously, our own defining quality is reflected in the world itself. Our faculties of knowledge fit the laws of nature.
A world that constantly evokes human pleasure at the discovery of design within it, that can only be understood by assuming our own essential feature running through its heart, could only be the product of a benevolent designer.
The notion that reality is purposive is unprovable, yet aspects of nature fit our own faculties of reason. Our perception of reality is not comprehensive, but when our minds fit into the structure of reality, our own capacities are reflected in a universe which metamorphoses ceaselessly.
Kant's conception of the sublime:
Darker aspects of a universe shot through with violence are revealed in an instant of lightning or at the moment of a volcanic explosion. These moments surpass any imaginable human capacity to understand. Harmony is not part of the world but part of our ability to approach it.
(notes from Susan Nieman's Evil in Modern Thought, "The Impotence of Reason: David Hume" (148-169)
David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, explored the logical flaw in optimistic determinism in a systematic fashion, yet his conclusions were even more disturbing than Voltaire's destruction of our idea of utopia. Hume never published his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779). He quietly left this subversive document concealed in his desk, for in it he takes aim at the Enlightenment's best hope: a natural religion that could be embraced by all who embraced reason.
The flaw with the argument from design:
The argument from design for the existence of God is at the heart of natural religion. The existence of God seems self evident by the natural facts which surround us. Hume points out that this argument is based on the testimony of what we plainly seem to see: a natural order of such fineness and complexity that it could not have been developed by accident. Kant's favorite proof of the exquisite design of nature is the preservation of life through the changing seasons. Simple common sense makes us rejoice at the wonder of it all. Hume, though, argues that this sort of reasoning is moved by the same fear and trembling that led to darker varieties of worship. It is the fear of mischance and accident and other types of disorder.
Hume proceeds to deconstruct every brick and beam with which the argument from design is composed. We infer cause from effect, but what exactly does causation come to? No ordinary rules of logic tell us that events need cause. The claim that every event must have a cause (sufficient reason) is not in and of itself a claim of some rational cause. All we note when events repeat with certain causes is a constant conjunction not a sure relation. What about the cause of events which happened only once.... like the Creation? Can we be sure that every event has some cause or another?
Only unthinking anthropomorphism allows us to believe that the law of cause and effect has some rational basis. The enlightened thinking that tried to undo magical thinking turns out to be as rife with magic as any other. Christianity itself is merely one religious alternative among others. Hume argued that polytheism makes more sense than monotheism (as well as being healthier: it promotes tolerance). If a product as finely crafted as a schooner cannot be produced by one man alone but requires a whole crew of skilled workers, why not assume that several deities assembled to fabricate the universe?
The argument from design also depends on the claim that the universe is a perfectly constructed artifact. Descriptions of some processes in the natural world make the argument from design a reasonable inference, if inference were possible. However, Hume argues that if the universe were indeed designed by some celestial contractor, then he did a pretty lousy job: the roof leaks, the stairs slope, the windows jam. War, oppression, sickness and death are undeniable. The universality of human misery is part of an infinite gradation of deadly competition in nature, enemies each seek the other's destruction from above and below. What purpose could this strange machinery have? Storms ruin harvests. The sun destroys what the gentle rain has nurtured.
The defenders of both traditional religion and natural religion would reply with the challenge: if you don't like this world, could you design a better one? Hume rejects this idea as outside of his competence, but he does suggest that this design has been a disaster. A better designer would have dealt with four key problems:
Human reason can find no ground why a universe could not be designed without those four circumstances that lead to so much evil. "Be reasonable!" That means "Reduce your expectations." Hume displays reason's helplessness time and time again.
To resolve these dilemmas, Hume would have had to renounce the optimism of his age and move backwards towards faith or forward into atheism.
Hegel's philosophical project was to eliminate the incomprehensible from contingency and demonstrate that consequences in reality are not random but determined, part of a vast movement of the divine spirit through time.
For Kant contingency (the circumstances or situation in which we exist at any given moment) could only be considered rational due to a leap of faith. The fact that contingency ever works as it ought is miraculous. We can explain some data but much is left to chance.
Hegel might be considered the German Pangloss. What was it that Pangloss always said? Here is how Hegel puts it:
It is in world history that we encounter the sum total of evil... The world is governed by God, and world history is the content of his government and the execution of his plans. (Hegel, Introduction to Lectures on the Philosophy of World History)
For Hegel, Kant's insistence on an infinite distance between the world as it is and the world as we perceive it to be is as unnecessary as the distance between being human and being God. He argued that history is not only the cause of our suffering but also the redemption of suffering. By studying history we can perceive the divine plan. Human reason is divine reason. They are one and the same: the determining force of history. So for Hegel, suffering is necessary. Everything that happens has a purpose. Hegel disagreed with Kant's idea that ignorance is necessary to our moral freedom. For Kant our own mastery over our good will is so absolute that it matches the power of the most absolute sovereign. For Hegel, such freedom is empty. The notion that our best efforts to be moral yield random consequences is unacceptable. Hegel overcomes finitude and contingency by asserting that everything happens for a reason. We are part of a progressive process- something immortal and infinite: the process of history overcoming evil. This process is slow, but it is determined. History is the world's bildungsroman (the story of a young man's education and maturation). The idea that history has meaning may be the most important idea of the 19th century (just as the ideas that nature has rational order was the key idea of the 18th century.)
How does Hegel overcome the obvious evidence that seems to refute the argument for God's existence according to design? Human history does not seem to testify to God's wisdom and goodness. Hegel admits that history is a slaughter bank, yet Hegel sought sense inside of evil itself.
For Hegel history began in the state of nature when two brutes on a rampage met and fought. During that fight both achieved self-consciousness. For Hobbes battle is brute striving without end or purpose. For Hegel, conflict is the beginning of understanding itself, for both the victor and the loser in the fight achieve identity. The loser becomes a slave and is forced to work for the victor who basks in his glory, but since highly refined work is a higher activity than battle, the slave is closer to the creative spirit than the master. He eventually discovers the tools he will need to make his class stronger, ans so, the world spirit has achieved its purpose: progress. The violent clash was the best means to push history forward.
Evil can thus be considered as analogous to the growing pains of a child, and maturity will be worth the pain. The world spirit is developing towards 'consciousness of itself': a state of greater rationality and human freedom, but creativity generates new conflict and pushes the process forward to its next stage. This process is dialectical. We have seen it before in the history of ideas.
The Eleatics (material substance is eternal) vs.
Heraclitus (everything constantly changes)
Empedocles synthesized both ideas in his atomic theory.
Kant's synthesis of the two
The Periods of History:
of the plow and the yoke)
Creation of a new ruling class.
of the internal combustion engine)
Creation of a new ruling class.