Monday, July 16, 2012

And now for something completely different - My SMPT proposal

II'm never sure if it is okay to post these, but here it is anyways. My proposal for September's SMPT conference at Tah State.

“What’s Ragged Should Be Left Ragged”:
God’s Problem of Evil
Loyd Ericson
SMPT Proposal 2012

Latter-day Saint philosophical and theological responses--or defenses and theodices--to the problem of evil generally take a two-prong approach. The first is an affirmation of the language traditionally used to describe God that are evoked in the problem of evil (omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence), while simultaneously affirming a different understanding of these attributes. Thus, God is still all-powerful, but nevertheless limited by logical restraints, human free-will and certain natural forces and laws; God is still all-knowing, but His knowledge is limited by the undetermined future resulting from libertarian freedoms. And God is all-loving in His desire to prevent evil and suffering, but tempers those desires in order to achieve ultimate greater goods for humanity.
The second is to appeal to these newly-defined attributes, along with LDS beliefs about the uncreated nature of matter, pre-existent human spirits, and eternal progression to conclude that the Mormon understanding of God (or at least how these LDS thinkers understand God) is able to side-step and avoid the problem of evil. Thus, while affirming God’s power, knowledge, and love and the reality of suffering and evils, they conclude that all four of these claims can harmoniously exist within Mormon theology without any unnecessary, purposeless, and meaningless suffering.
Utilizing DZ Phillips’s analysis of the problem of evil, this presentation will argue that the very logical problem of evil itself is a result of vacuous metaphysical assumptions being forced onto our conceptions of God, and that at the heart of the problem is not a question of the logical compatibility of the existence of God as defined by the traditional attributes, but is instead one of the primal existential questions of human life: why this suffering?—a question that afflicts both theist and atheist alike.
In his book The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God, Phillips contends that the problem of evil, as traditionally conceived by philosophers, critics, and apologists of religion, is dependent upon conceptually and grammatically incoherent notions of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence--that is, it makes no sense to say that anything, including God, is all powerful, all knowing, or all good, as the concepts themselves have little sense. He argues that Christian apologists such as Alvin Plantinga, Stephen Davis, Richard Swineburne, and John Hick in attempting to answer the conceptually flawed problem fail to recognize these conceptual flaws, are unable to even succeed in solving the problem if it is taken at face value, and ultimately attempt to devise theodicies and defences that strip away the complexities and puzzles of life that are an inherent part of what it means to be human.
By attempting to meet the metaphysical assumptions imposed on God, these thinkers seek to provide God’s answer to the problem of evil in such a way that the primal question is satisfied—that is, they provide and answer to why this suffering? In doing so, suffering and evil in the presence of God’s existence are explained through a system of checks and balances where each are either purposeful pains utilized for a greater good (example: X develops moral character), unfortunate but necessary results of goods (X is a result of the great good of free-will), or compensated or overshadowed in the eschaton (X will be seen as “worth it” or seem to be “not that big of a deal” in heaven). According to Phillips, “theodicies make the mistake of thinking that . . . what is needed is some kind of super-explanation [of suffering]. . . . If the transcendent divine plan refers to a future state of affairs after death, continuous, in some sense, with this life, which is supposed to justify or redeem its tribulations, it is difficult to see why this future life should not be as puzzling as our present one.”[1]
For Phillips, living in the face of unexplainable suffering, where there is no reason why one is stricken and another is not, undergirds our very conception and grammar of life. To talk of life without this is to be confused about what is meant by human life and experience. Thus, for the theodicists to point to heaven or an afterlife as a resolution to this struggle, is to misuse the very language of life. Rather than attempting to put forth a system that explains suffering, Phillips, appeals to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s criticism of forcing philosophy into non-philosophical matters, “what’s ragged should be left ragged.”[2]
LDS philosophers and theologians who have attempted to provide a Mormon response to the problem of evil are due the same criticism that Phillips offers his fellow Christian thinkers. They too attempt to answer to the conceptually confused demands of the philosopher’s problem of evil. And in doing so, they attempt to construct a theology where all suffering is ultimately accounted for and appeal to an eschaton where “all things will be made right.” Thus, like almost any reader who has difficulty accepting Alma’s theodicy to Amulek—where God stays his power so that the suffering victims can witness in heaven against their tormentors, and where that suffering is rendered insignificant in the eschaton of God’s glory (Alma 14:11)—we must avoid the temptation to answer the existential question “Why this suffering?” with an explanation.
However, there is a point in which Phillips and LDS theology must diverge, while maintaining Phillips’s demands for conceptual clarity and faithfulness to the way of life. For Phillips, a primary reason why an appeal to the afterlife cannot be used to answer the problem of evil is because, for him, talk of a life after death is conceptually nonsensical. This is because, according to Phillips, those things that give sense to our concept of life—particularly relationships—do not exist in the next life. In other words, if I am no longer a husband, son, brother, father, friend, uncle, etc., what does it mean to say that I continue to exist, when my very understanding of my self is parasitic upon those relationships. Similarly, he argues, in what sense can the theodicist talk of God’s moral character when God lacks the very things that give sense to us talking about each other having moral character—bodies, emotions, relationships, and the ability to suffer.
However, far from “solving” the problem of evil and providing an answer to the suffering, what the anthropomorphic understanding of God and the afterlife reveal is that the problem of evil is as eternal as eternal life. Whereas LDS theodicists, like their Christian compatriots, want to argue that in the end all will be revealed and that God knows the answer to “why this suffering?” what LDS scripture and theology shows is that what will be revealed in the eschaton is that the problems and questions will still remain. The problem of evil is not just a problem for mortal man, but is God’s problem as well. Thus when Enoch asks God, “How is it thou canst weep?” God doesn’t reply with a theodicy or explanation to suffering. Rather he simply points to the evils of the existence and replies “Wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?”—or, how could I not weep? God’s response to “why this suffering?” isn’t an answer, but is anger and weeping.
Eternal life can be called life because the world of suffering and contingencies are ever present. Mormon theology does not offer a solution to the logical problem of evil, but rather points out that their isn’t supposed to be one—that it doesn’t make sense to have one, and that if there was somehow a solution, it would dissolve our very existence by making us no longer us. It begs us to “leave ragged what should be ragged.”

[1] PEPG, 131-32.
[2] C&V, 45.


  1. Very interesting conclusion Loyd. I'm probably guilty of exactly what you described here in what I say below, but I've been thinking about this topic again this week due to a very dear friend dying. If you don't mind leaving the theory of the people you right about and discussing your own view of the subject, let me know what you think of the following..."Thus, while affirming God’s power, knowledge, and love and the reality of suffering and evils, they conclude that all four of these claims can harmoniously exist within Mormon theology without any unnecessary, purposeless, and meaningless suffering."

    I'm not sure if that is true, at least I don't see it that way and I assume there are others that see it as I do. Because God let's this world exist within a significant amount of free agency then there are several things that happen to people that are not necessarily for their benefit.

    At least that is how I reconcile a just and powerful God with all the crap we see in this world. For example, the worst thing a person can do in this world in my opinion is to sexually abuse a child multiple times. I don't think any rational person would argue that the child needed that or is better of for that. At the same time if this life is a trial and God doesn't frequently intervene to keep such terrible things from happening then I would assume it is because he sees free agency as trumping unnecessary suffering in most cases.

    Additionally, some times a person's suffering has nothing to do with free agency, but just the result of how things work in the world (I once heard someone describe this as the FRICTION of several entities [humans, bacteria, wind currents, etc] working out their agency/forces against each other). For example, someone getting a terrible infection and dying at an inopportune time in their life. They didn't need the trial (or weren't needed on the other side), nor those left behind, but because God doesn't micromanage this world he "lets" these types of suffering occur.

  2. I enjoyed that, Loyd. There is no justification for any particular evil, and risk of evil generally is essential to life. God relinquishes not just humans, but also the entire environmental context in which we find ourselves, otherwise there is no meaningful existence. We do the same with our creations, and will continue to do so with increasing complexity. All who procreate have been complicit. All who engineer synthetic life and artificial intelligence will be complicit. Our greatest creations transcend prosthetics as we relinquish power to them, increasingly exposing them to the experience of evil, as well as good, sensibility and meaningfulness.

  3. This is really remarkable, Lloyd, and I sincerely wish I could hear you give the full presentation.

    I and I suppose I, as someone who sincerely loves Paulsen's, "Joseph Smith and the Problem of Evil" have some things to think about.

  4. Cool, Loyd. Have you read Tilley of Thiel?

  5. I have not. But I'm guessing you think I should.


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