Wednesday, December 22, 2010

It’s a Sad and Beautiful World

“It’s a Sad and beautiful World”. These are Tom Wait’s expressive words in the Jim Jarmusch film “Down by Law”. Such a simple phrase, but so apt.

When tragedy strikes our friends or family members, or when some large scale disaster occurs, I suspect we are inclined to dwell more on the sad, or ugly, aspects. When thinking about the mysteries of the cosmos, or when on a walk on a gorgeous spring day, perhaps we focus much more on the beautiful. I wonder if it is possible to keep both in the mind at the same time?

There is a field of theology; called, I believe,“theodicy” that deals with how to reconcile the sad (or cruel or ugly or evil) aspects of the world with a “loving creator”. The popular Christian apologist C. S. Lewis wrote a book “The Problem of Pain” deals with this. Of course, as Lewis points out somewhere in that book, this is only a “problem” for people who are believers in some kind of God. Certainly for us agnostics, the difficulty of reconciling the negative aspect of the world inclines us a little more toward atheism. I also have to add that, even though it has been some years since I have read Lewis' book, I recall it involving relatively weak (by his standards) arguments.

There have of course been a great many attempts to reconcile the existence of evil with an infinitely good God. The most common justifications seems to involve mankind’s free will and his/her subsequent “Fall” (consisting of the free choice to disobey God’s rules). Related to this, I think, is the concept of “original sin”, which I admit to not understanding, and further do I do not understand its relation to “the Fall”. In any case, this argument tends to not appeal much to the skeptics among us, since it is not clear how all of humanity can be held accountable for an act of disobedience on the part of a distant ancestor.

An added difficulty is that pain and evil can be divided into “natural” and “human caused” portions. The former being tsunamis, earthquakes, and the like, the latter being murder and other crimes committed by people against other people. With a stretch, one can perhaps imagine the “Fall” causing the latter. But how could that explain the natural evils? Of course, we hear today, after every major disaster, some highly dubious pronouncement by a fringe element about how the disaster was punishment for sin, but such claims are rejected by the vast majority of the clergy of all religions, as far as I can tell.

The late philosopher Robert Nozick made a fascinating point in his book “The Examined Life” that I don’t think I have ever heard before, or thought of. I believe Nozick was a non-believer, so his argument, though ingenious, did not succeed in convincing him. It went like this: suppose there is a deity that considers making a vast spectrum of worlds, or realms, such as ours. The spectrum could be continuous (infinitely many) or it could be discrete. Further, imagine ranking them according to their foreseen “good (G) to bad (B)” ratio. It does not matter here how the G or B values are determined, we simply postulate that the Deity is sufficiently clever to be able to accurately make such an assessment. Now suppose that the Deity decides to create, or to embody with reality, all of the worlds where the G/B ratio is higher than some cutoff value. It might be a ratio of 1, or it might be a ratio of 1 million—the point is that a great many of the created worlds would involve B being non zero. So on this model it is not clear that one could necessarily “blame” a Deity for creating a world with evil in it. I think Nozick goes on to admit that this model is not very consoling; but I have to admire him for coming up with a novel and clever idea.

It is odd that the modern “Creationist” seems to object to the theory of evolution on the grounds that it implies many millions of years of animal suffering (“Nature Red in Tooth and Claw” ) , and indeed, it does. Their position seems to be that this is inconsistent with a “loving creator”. Again, indeed it does seem to be so. But how is this suffering any different from what goes on today in nature all around us? For an example, see “March of the Penguins” , or any nature show about animals in the wild. Surely the animals cannot be held accountable for man’s “Fall”, can they? Well, for completeness, I must add that in addition the “Creationists” tend to take the Bible literally, and hence they see evolution as contradicting that source. But surely nobody would really take all of it literally today, would they? To consider just one example, does any sane person believe in killing their recalcitrant children ?