Monday, March 5, 2007

Problem of evil - "the mystery move"

I recently pointed out that the fact that there's a mystery about why there is anything at all (I'll assume for sake of argument this is a mystery) in no way allows theists off the hook so far as the problem of evil is concerned.

To admit ignorance concerning why there is anything at all is not to concede that we can't rationally rule certain explanations out. It seems to me we certainly can rule out the Judeo-Christian God, as traditionally defined. Whoever created the universe, it certainly wasn't him.

Mark Vernon defends his agnosticism by saying, in effect, "But sophisticated theists don't say God is all-powerful and all-good. In fact they sensibly don't say anything about him at all. So you haven't shown their "mystery God" doesn't exist, have you?" Here's Vernon:

My point is that all images of God must be done away with. So, no: you can’t agree on what a true God is. Again, the great theologians say this: God is always wholly other. You might approximate. But then you have to do away with your approximations too. God is beyond human comprehension else not God.

But now here's my question: what is the difference between the atheist who admits there is indeed a fascinating mystery about why there is anything at all, a mystery to which they do not have the answer, and Vernon's theist who says there's a mystery about why there is anything at all, and calls this mystery "God"?

Surely the difference is entirely trivial and semantic?

By the way, Mark seems to think that the mystery of existence is one that just doesn't much grip atheists. Of course it does. I just spent some time reviewing Bede Rundle's Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing for Philosophical Review. Rundle is an atheist, yet he's clearly gripped by the question.

9 comments:

Ophelia said...

"the atheist who admits there is indeed a fascinating mystery about why there is anything at all, a mystery to which they do not have the answer, and Vernon's theist who says there's a mystery about why there is nothing at all"

Should that "nothing" be another "anything"? Or am I confused. The two comparatives are meant to be parallel, aren't they?

Stephen Law said...

Yes, sorry that should be"anything" I have fixed it.

Mark Vernon said...

The point about mystery is not that nothing can be said about it. To borrow your Holmes analogy from earlier, the perpetrator of a crime may remain a mystery but a great deal may come to be known about the crime.

Similarly, with the mystery of things like existence. It may remain a mystery as to why there is something rather than nothing. But in asking the question, a tremendous amount can be learnt on the way, that simultaneously deepens, shapes and focuses the mystery, as it were.

So too with the mystery of divinity, and the task of theology. Ideas of God can and, I would say, should be done away with, but that is not tantamount to doing away with God: rather the aim is to deepen, shape and focus the mystery that is the idea of God. The process is vital.

In my book, if you'll excuse the plug, I talk about this in relation to silence. In short, there is a silence that just shuts up, as in 'haven't a clue, mate'. And a silence that first talks a lot, explores what people have said, ponders and strives, and finally falls onto silence. I also tried to talk about this in a Guardian piece at http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1956798,00.html...

To put it another way, how can we find a way of life that engages more deeply with mystery? This is tricky since approaching any mystery can only partly be done in words or, in science, by maths; these suggest symbols or metaphors, shaped by what has been learnt; and ultimately I think lead merely to intuitions about things - hopefully good ones because of all the work done before.

The difference between the atheist and the theist who both admit of ultimate mystery has been well articulated by Denys Turner, sometime professor of philosophical theology at Cambridge, in his lecture 'How to be an atheist' (I think now available in a book entitled 'Faith seeking'). Both the atheist and the theist will do away with false gods, and false theories, as they ponder the mystery. But whereas the atheist will conclude there is no god, and the universe is pure, if delightful, chance. The theist will conclude that the universe is pure gift - as articulated by the doctrine of creation ex nihilo.

The difference between believing the universe is chance and gift strikes me as a very great one.

Stephen Law said...

Mark V says:

The atheist and the theist will do away with false gods, and false theories.

Excellent - so we can do away with the Judeo-Christian one, as traditionally understood and defined (by Swinburne etc.), then?

Mark V also says:

But whereas the atheist will conclude there is no god, and the universe is pure, if delightful, chance. The theist will conclude that the universe is pure gift.

Three points here. First, the atheist does not have to say it is chance (Rundle doesn't). Second, there are other alternatives: the universe might be neither chance nor gift, but a curse, or a casually produced doodle tossed aside, etc. etc.

Third, even if it is a gift, given the overwhelming evidence of much unnecessary bad stuff in the universe, it clearly isn't the generous gift of an all-powerful all-good God, right? If my gift to you is a home made food processor that works poorly, spraying the kitchen and slashing your fingers, you would sensibly conclude, would you not, that I either I don't much care about your safety, or else am not much of an engineer?

So let's agree that the Judeo-Christian God, as traditionally conceived, does not exist, shall we?

The Barefoot Bum said...

I don't think there's any "mystery" about why there's something instead of nothing. A mystery entails something true but not known to be true, an answer that exists but is not (yet) available.

But there cannot be any fundamental answer to the question. Any answer, "I.e. there's something rather than nothing because of X" would immediately raise the question, "Why is there X instead of not X?" putting us into an infinite regress.

I think Wittgenstein would have called "Why is there something rather than nothing?" a perfect example of a psuedoproblem.

-- Larry

The Barefoot Bum said...

Mark Vernon:

To borrow your Holmes analogy from earlier, the perpetrator of a crime may remain a mystery but a great deal may come to be known about the crime.

What is known about a crime is therefore ipso facto not a mystery. Furthermore, we have not established (to carry on the metaphor) that the universe itself is a "crime" with a perpetrator who is not yet known.

Ideas of God can and, I would say, should be done away with, but that is not tantamount to doing away with God... And a silence that first talks a lot, explores what people have said, ponders and strives, and finally falls onto silence.

I was raised a Quaker, so I know a thing or two about active silence, but I have to say that the sense of these statements escapes me completely.

anticant said...

What's "fascinating" about why there is anything at all? Surely we have to start by taking something for granted - and my own unique individual consciousness seems the obvious place for me.

What I'm interested in hearing from professional philosophers is not their views on why there is anything, but their conclusions about the nature of what there is.

Rev Sam said...

Hello Stephen - delighted to discover you in the blogosphere - you may not recall but you tutored me at both Trinity Oxford and Heythrop! I just want to pick up on your reply to Mark Vernon here:

- very happy to abandon any defence of what Swinburne argues for;
- happy that it doesn't have to be 'chance vs gift' as the only choices, though 'gift' is certainly a Christian minimum;
- the point about suffering is the strongest one against the Judeo-Christian god but a) it's still possible to 'accept the ticket' in Dostoyevsky's phrasing (ie to acknowledge the reality of suffering and still say yes to creation), and b) it was Voltaire in his study who found that the Lisbon earthquake undermined faith; the residents of Lisbon got on with praying.

Cheers!
Sam

Dick said...

That anything exists at all - including human consciousness that is able to recognise that this is a question that can even be asked - is surely the most fundamental, fascinating (and unanswerable) question of the lot.

Some people evidently think that because it's unanswerable there is no point asking it, and we need instead to start with what we've got.

I can't agree. 'What there is' demands a response from me (I am not disembodied consciousness in a sea of absolute nothingness, but a contingent being), and 'what there is' includes this transcendent mystery. And because that transcendent mystery lies at the heart of all existence - not just me in my skull - it needs to be the starting point for all thinking about the appropriate response to existence.

'God' is not the answer to the question. 'God' IS the question, couched in language that (quite rightly) demands response.