Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Does free will solve the problem of evil?

I've been enjoying Bertrand Russell's concise refutations of influential philosophical arguments in his book History of Western Philosophy. Here's Russell's refutation of Spinoza's theory that your misfortunes only seem bad from your self-centered perspective, but cease to be problematic when seen as part of the universe as a whole:

I cannot accept this; I think that particular events are what they are, and do not become different by absorption into a whole. Each act of cruelty is eternally a part of the universe; nothing that happens later can make that act good rather than bad, or can confer perfection on the whole of which it is a part.

Now here's his refutation of Leibniz's argument that there's a benevolent God who made this "the best of all possible worlds." Leibniz said the best possible world would contain free will, so God created a world with free will, which explains why bad things happen: they're human acts of free will. There are many obvious problems with this argument — for instance, there's a lot of bad stuff in the world that's not caused by human action. But Russell's refutation is particularly clever:
A Manichaean might retort that this is the worst of all possible worlds, in which the good things that exist serve only to heighten the evils. The world, he might say, was created by a wicked demiurge [i.e. a demon], who allowed free will, which is good, in order to make sure of sin, which is bad, and of which the evil outweighs the good of free will. The demiurge, he might continue, created some virtuous men, in order that they might be punished by the wicked; for the punishment of the virtuous is so great an evil that it makes the world worse than if no good men existed.

It's a commonplace to ridicule Leibniz's view that God has ensured that we live in "the best of all possible worlds." I mean, Voltaire made fun of it in his novel Candide, so it must be wrong. I'm guessing that people will balk at the "best of all possible worlds" idea when phrased like that, but if you phrase it more gently — "Things work out for the best" — it seems hugely influential.

I agree with Russell's response to Spinoza: cruel acts aren't transformed into good by being absorbed into the whole universe. This might be why I'm generally indifferent to religion. Unlike many secularists, though, I don't believe that cruelty and suffering are "just there" and don't have any larger meaning in the grand scheme of things. I don't have any more interest in an "It's all meaningless" view than in an "It's all for the best" view. What I do believe is that even if things that happen in the world do have some kind of ultimate meaning, the suffering is still there, and it shouldn't be rationalized away.

This explains the overwhelming instinct, cutting across political lines, that torture is just wrong, period. Even those who argue for exceptions to society's general "don't torture people" rule tend to rely on scenarios where the suffering caused by torture is far outweighed by preventing others from suffering -- the classic "ticking bomb," etc. This still implies that suffering itself is the basic unit that we're looking at in making moral assessments. So people are quibbling over a very narrow exception — maybe an important exception, but not one that calls into question the fundamental "torture is bad" consensus.

And so, no one takes the position: "Hey, go ahead and torture as much as you like! It's sure to be a net plus in the end — it'll be a learning experience, or it will be a ringing affirmation of our own free will, or something." Well ... no one applies this to human beings. But it's regularly applied to God. Bizarrely, God is held to lower moral standards than humans are.

UPDATE: Church of Rationality remarks on that last sentence: "John Althouse Cohen puts in another application to Bartlett's Familiar Quotations..."

UPDATE: Continued here.