Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Nature of metaphysics and the problem of evil

To: Benjamin A.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nature of metaphysics and the problem of evil
Date: 29 February 2008 12:12

Dear Benjamin,

Thank you for your letter which I received by post on 19 February, with your first essay for the Pathways Metaphysics program, in response to the question, 'What is metaphysics? Is there anything special about the methods of metaphysics, or about its subject matter? Illustrate your answer with one example of a metaphysical problem or controversy.'

You have some interesting things to say at the beginning about the nature of metaphysics, that it deals with 'the hardest questions imaginable to the human mind' as well as 'the simplest'. A point you could have made here is that the simplest questions can often be the hardest, so there is not necessarily any real contrast here. For example, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' is simple but also very hard question.

You also suggest that the reason metaphysics is a problem is that it is 'so very difficult to define'. However, this cannot be *the* problem of metaphysics, or even the main problem. Lots of things are very difficult to define. What distinguishes metaphysics is that it purports to be a method of inquiry and a source of knowledge, yet there is no agreement over its legitimacy.

In responding to this challenge, we may indeed find that we have to distinguish between different conceptions of 'metaphysics' -- the 'bad' as well as the 'good' -- and this is itself a difficult task. For example, one might hold, as Kant did, that 'bad' metaphysics attempts to prove ultimate facts like God's existence on the basis of logic alone, while 'good' metaphysics is concerned to delimit the necessary conditions for human experience, for example the necessity of the concepts of 'substance' and 'cause'. In this sense, I agree with you that one of the major issues that has been battled over is the 'definition of metaphysics'.

You have chosen as your example of a metaphysical problem, the Problem of Evil. Your main point here seems to rest on a relativist view of values. 'Good' and 'evil' are designations which different societies apply in different ways. Now, this could be contested. It could be argued that even if you and I would disagree with a Muslim fundamentalist about certain things, there are nevertheless other things that we would agree on, and that the disagreements can be traced, in part, to different factual beliefs as well as different religious beliefs.

Imagine a Christian arguing with a Muslim over whether it is 'right' or 'wrong' to stone women to death for adultery. Both agree that obedience to God's law is an absolute moral imperative. What they disagree over is the factual question of what God's law *is*.

However, behind the point about relativism is a more fundamental and more persuasive point about the difference between the human perspective and God's perspective. Metaphysics is, as you say, 'immeasurable'. If we suppose the existence of an absolute truth, and a God who knows this truth, a truth which we can never 'measure' or know, then the admission that values are a matter for *judgement* is sufficient to cast doubt on the claim that there is more evil in the world than a 'good' God 'ought' to tolerate.

How can anyone know this? It is difficult to argue with the claim that that the 'best of all possible worlds' in Leibniz's sense is likely to have some evil, simply because we accept that some goods, e.g. health, require a lesser evil, e.g. taking medicine. So now, the question resolves into, 'How much evil can God legitimately tolerate?' There is no possible way to answer that. Is the Holocaust 'too much' as some liberal Jewish theologians have argued? In that case, if God is good then He is not all powerful. God was unable to prevent the Holocaust. (This is in fact what my sister Elli Sarah, a Liberal Rabbi, believes.)

Maybe the Holocaust was 'necessary medicine' to prevent something even worse. There is no way one can debate that proposition, except in terms of what *we* can tolerate. Then the statement, 'There is too much evil in the world' becomes a statement about how we must necessarily view the world, rather than an objective judgement about God.

A related question which you pass over briefly is the point that 'moral evil' arises from the deeds of men, with the implication that God cannot be held responsible since denying human beings freedom to choose between good and evil would itself be a greater evil. Is this a good argument? It would have been interesting to know what you thought.

Finally, you suggest a radical solution to the problem of evil, that God is not 'omnibenevolent' as traditionally defined, but 'both good and evil'. This connects with two well-known 'heresies' in Christian theology: the heresy of pantheism which views God as ultimately identical with His creation, and the heresy of Manichaeism (or Manichaeanism), which holds that there are ultimately two forces in the world, represented by God and the Devil, and that God is incapable of defeating the Devil.

Pantheism does not solve the Problem of Evil, since we are still left with the question whether this is 'the best of all possible worlds' or whether God has fallen short in some way in allowing more evil than necessary. Manichaeism still attracts followers. However, if you are going to believe in a 'God' who has to share power, then why stop with two? Maybe the Earth was, as Douglas Adams says, made by super-intelligent mice.

The Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes (look him up in Google) produced what is still the most persuasive argument for the claim that *if* God exists, then there can only be one 'God', whose power is not limited by any other being.

All the best,

Geoffrey