Darel Rex Finley in 888

How About A Rational Theodicy

2006.06.25   prev     next

A  large portion of William Dembski’s April 2006 paper, “Christian Theodicy in Light of Genesis and Modern Science”, is a discussion of young-earth-creationism (past and present), and “original sin” theology. Most of that discussion is not relevant to modern ID (Intelligent Design), in my opinion, and even violates the scientific underpinnings of ID by presuming the reliability of Christian scripture. However, the paper does touch on some topics that inspire me to comment:

[W]e can think of the order of creation as history from the vantage of divine intention and action. This top-down view of history regards creation as a drama produced, directed, and written by God and sees the logic of this history as the pattern of purposes that God intends for creation. History from such a divine perspective contrasts with our ordinary, bottom-up view of history, often referred to as natural history. Natural history confines history to space and time and sees the logic of history as determined by physical causality.
   This distinction between the order of creation and natural history is a special case of a deeper distinction regarding the nature of time. (p. 12)

In Mechanism (October 2005), I proposed that this life is a videogame or movie of sorts. Analyze the above quote in terms of the creators of a videogame or a movie, and the “nature of time” contrast focuses: The authors of a videogame set up the rules of the game, then let the players have at it. The authors don’t know the particulars of each player’s experience in advance. The makers of a movie do know the whole story from start to finish — but the movie is a fixed sequence of events, not reactive to an audience member’s viewing of it. Free will is an illusion, maintained in part by the audience member’s lack of knowledge of what is going to happen next. Neither of these models is acceptable to Dembski, because his religion dictates belief in a singular creator who gives us free choice of actions (as do the authors a videogame) but who also has prescient knowledge of our future (as do the makers of a movie). And his theodicy requires both of these contradictory premises.

I will argue that one can be both theologically orthodox about the Fall [that traces all natural and personal evil in the world to human sin] and scientifically orthodox about the age of the Earth. (p.15)

Thus, according to Whorton’s Perfect Purpose Paradigm, God creates a world of suffering not in response to human sin but to accomplish some future end (i.e., “the Master’s plan”). But this makes human suffering a means to an end. And even if this end is lofty, it is still the case that we are being used. Used is used, and there is no way to make this palatable, much less compatible with human dignity. That’s why Kant taught that we must treat fellow human beings not as means but as ends in themselves. And that’s why, unless human suffering is permitted by God because, at some level, we have brought it on ourselves, Whorton’s Perfect Purpose Paradigm commits an end-justifies-the-means fallacy. (p. 16)

Isn’t this just a complicated way of saying “I must deserve the unpleasant things that have happened to me, because to consider otherwise is unpalatable?” That logic, to my mind, makes about as much sense as “Darwinism must be true because it’s such a delightfully simple explanation.” If ID proponents are going to insist on the scientific method from others, it would be nice to see them holding to it themselves.

Another way to justify that natural evils are not morally significant is to grit one’s teeth and boldly assert that God takes full responsibility for natural evil, that he directly created it, that he even takes pleasure in it, and that, however counterintuitive it may seem, natural evil is entirely compatible with the goodness of God in creation. ... On this view, the challenge of theodicy is not, as Mark Whorton advises, to trust that God’s good purposes will be accomplished somewhere down the road but to get over our squeamishness. (p. 17)

After quoting David Snoke arguing that God intentionally created a world with problems and suffering, Dembski asserts that this view is incompatible with a “loving” God, and dismisses it thusly:

Snoke has fallen into the trap of converting a problem into its own solution. It does nothing to attenuate the problem of natural evil to say that natural evil is really okay because God invents it and is proud of inventing it — full stop. (p. 18)

After that, Dembski wanders off into the traditional theodicy brew of confused attempts to reconcile God’s “benevolence” and “love” with a world that often disappoints and frightens us; and of course Dembski includes a heavy dose of guilt (i.e. we earn the sufferings of natural calamity, which have been pre-applied by an omniscient God in reaction to our future sin). The combination of Dembski’s desire for a loving, caring God, and his serious intent to formulate a theodicy compatible with science and logic, is well-summarized by the following passage:

Christian theism has traditionally regarded God as omniscient in the sense of possessing perfect knowledge of future contingent propositions and as omnipotent in the sense of being able to act effectively in the world to bring about any result that is not logically impossible. Combined with Newcomb’s paradox, divine omniscience and omnipotence now yields an interesting insight into divine action, namely this: God is able to act preemptively in the world, anticipating events and, in particular, human actions, thereby guiding creation along paths that God deems best. In fact, it would display a lack of love and care for the world if such an omniscient and omnipotent creator God did not act preemptively in the world. (p. 22)

Let me go out on a limb here and say that I believe Dembski’s own Law of Conservation of Information precludes his above-described scenario logically. Any creators who cannot do the logically impossible also cannot act in their created world in the manner Dembski describes. (And therefore, Newcomb’s scenario is resolved by the simple non-existence of the prescient-and-intervening entity it requires.) To know how a dynamic system, such as this universe, is going to turn out — in fine detail, such as the particulars of one human individual’s life — you have to run that system and find out. So our creators may know exactly how my life plays out, but if so only because this universe has already been run to its conclusion, and the recorded sensations of a particular human brain are now being played back to me, a sensing being in the same realm as this universe’s creators.

Of course, the creators possibly could revert the universe to some prior point in time P, and then intervene with some small change, but the very act of doing so would create a cascading butterfly effect that would render obsolete their prescient knowledge of what happens after point P. Dembski recognizes this problem later in the paper, dubbing it “the infinite dialectic” and a “feedback loop” that ruins the prescient intervention scenario. He even does a better job than most sci-fi authors of realizing how bad the problem is, when he points out that time-travel stories often portray the changes as much less severe than they would really be. But acknowledging the problem and solving it are two different things. Dembski offers no logical solution — I’m betting because there isn’t one — and instead simply proposes that God can do the logically impossible, an idea that appeared to have been ruled out earlier in the paper.

God, as an omnipotent and omniscient being, transcends the physical world and therefore is not bound by this causal-temporal logic. This is not to say that in acting in the world God violates this logic. To violate it, he would need to be under its jurisdiction. But as the creator of nature’s causal nexus and therefore as the originator of its causal-temporal logic, God perforce acts in ways that this logic cannot circumscribe. (p. 23)

Consequently, only an infinitely powerful and infinitely wise God can pull off the infinite dialectic. The infinite dialectic renders divine action at once real-time and eternal. It bridges the immanent with the transcendent. In the infinite dialectic, God acts on the whole of creation at all times and in all places, acting not as a cause among other causes (God does not moonlight as a physical cause) but as a cause of causes (God causes physical causes to fulfill his purposes). (p. 25)

It sure would be nice to know what any of that means at a criticizable level of detail, not to mention how we could verify it, but don’t hold your breath. The answer, I’m sure, is that we’re not God so we can’t understand it. (So how does Dembski?) To attribute observed phenomena to a being that can do the logically impossible is to destroy any possibility of rational discussion of that being, or its actions, or its creations. That, presumably, is why Dembski initially ruled it out.

The rest of the paper is a tortured analysis of the story of Adam and Eve, mixed up with prescient punishment (rehabilitation, whatever), which strongly reaffirms my belief that the whole how-did-we-bring-all-suffering-upon-ourselves theodicy is itself the “trap” into which we can fall, and it is Snoke, not Dembski, who has successfully avoided that trap. Snoke-style theodicy is, in a sense, simply about growing up. As young children, we want only foods that are sweet or bland. But when we mature into adults, our tastes blossom to a rich mixture of the sweet, the sour, the bitter, and the spicy. A skinned knee that once caused deep anguish is now viewed as one of the minor hazards of a game of soccer or of a military drill: either an unavoidable cost of the activity itself, or an incentive to be more careful and skillful with one’s next maneuver.

When we watch an entertaining movie, we love some of the characters and despise others, but any attempt to apply such love or hate to the director of the film, because of the joys/miseries of the characters, is misguided. We admire the director’s ingenuity for creating a movie that grips us and invokes our feelings towards its characters and events. But the director and his crew are not characters in the movie. Rather, they are behind-the-scenes orchestrators, of whose existence we may be aware (as adults), but who we conveniently forget about while emotionally engaged in the moment-by-moment unfolding of the adventure which the film supplies us.


Side Note

While on the subject of prescient intervention, Dembski briefly touches upon the topic of predictive crime prevention (which I advocate wholeheartedly in Mechanism as a near-future project). He finds the idea untenable:

To preempt by restricting the freedom of the would-be criminal is therefore to base legal praxis on the presumption of guilt rather than innocence. Moreover, if carried out consistently, this approach, depending on how many potential criminals are in the society, will require constantly putting people in straitjackets to prevent them from committing crimes. This hardly makes for a carefree and vibrant society. (p. 24)

I think that putting a limited number of well-selected individuals in “straitjackets” (or, more likely, in institutions) is indeed a recipe for a society considerably more carefree and vibrant than the one we are currently enjoying. Any state power (think search-and-seizure, or contempt-of-court) could be a socially disruptive nightmare if injudiciously applied or badly implemented.


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