Skip to main content

Theodicy:Some thoughts

Nicolas Malebranche.jpg

If a believer in God is going to have a theodicy, that is, a measured effort to “justify the ways of God to man,” he is going to have to go in one of three directions. There are only three.
The problem is this. If God is all-powerful, then He can bring an end to evil. If God is ideally benevolent, then He wants to bring an end to evil. So: why is there evil?  
Three answers: you can choose to remain silent and regard the question as an unanswerable mystery (which Job learns to do at the end of the OT book bearing his name).  Or you can define “all-powerful” in a way that solves the problem. Or you can define “benevolent” in a way that solves the problem.
The problem is created by two constraints: that of power and that of goodness. Although no theodical authors would put it this way, some of them define “power” down and others define “goodness” down, loosening the one constraint or the other.  

In the late 17th century, Leibniz famously defined "power" down. This is the best of all possible worlds, he said. By stressing the modal notion of possibility he stressed impossibility as a limit on the power of even an omnipotent God. God could not create an evil-free world, presumably, for much the same reason he could not made two plus two equal five. 

Here are some of Leibniz' own words, "Shall God not give the rain, because there are low-lying places that will be there incommoded? Shall the sun not shine as much as it should for the world in general, because there are places that will be too much dried up in consequence?"  Both floods and droughts follow as a logical consequence from the creation of a world where humidity and heat are volatile and related variables. 

Leibniz' use of the phrase "the world in general" in that context and others certainly sounds as if it refers to the human world in general, the observable world consisting of all human societies that can be hurt by flood or drought, and that prosper when the right amount of water and the right amount of sun create fertile fields. He understood goodness to include this, and believed that God's actions optimize it.  The task of optimizing is a complicated one because tweaking it to help low-lying flood plains would hurt those who live in higher altitudes and vice versa. 

By contrast with all of this, a contemporary of Leibniz, Nicolas Malebranche, pictured above, effectively defined "goodness" down.  His views on the nature of God's power were broader than Leibniz' -- a fact that follows from "occasionalism," but I won't pursue that now -- and given this, his theodicy had to differ. Malebranche didn't agree that God had any interest in creating the greatest possible happiness for the sort of creatures who need both water and the sun's heat. For to say that he does would be to suggest that God pursues ends outside of Himself. It is key to Malebranche's theology, not just his theodicy, that this is wrong. God has "no need of His creatures." 

God created the world as a way of acting out His own glory, and for the sake of that goal (which is all that "goodness" really means when we speak of God as all good) God created a world that operates according to the simplest laws imaginable. He might create a world with happier creatures in it by operating through more complicated laws, but that would rather stain His glory. It would not be consistent with Goodness is the specific sense Malebranche thinks attributable. 

Indeed, Malebranche uses much the same meteorological image as Leibniz to make a different point. "One has no right to be annoyed that the rain falls in the sea where it is useless." Why does one not have a right to such annoyance?

It might seem at first glance that God has a fairly straightforward plumbing adjustment available to Him here. Redirect the rain that currently falls in the sea, have it fall on drought-afflicted but otherwise fertile lands. Without flooding out any low-landers, this change would increase the amount of food grown, making the human world significantly more perfect, on the reasonable assumption that famine is a bad thing. 

But God can't do that. Such ad hoc readjustments are inconsistent with his Glory. 


Popular posts from this blog

A Story About Coleridge

This is a quote from a memoir by Dorothy Wordsworth, reflecting on a trip she took with two famous poets, her brother, William Wordsworth, and their similarly gifted companion, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

We sat upon a bench, placed for the sake of one of these views, whence we looked down upon the waterfall, and over the open country ... A lady and gentleman, more expeditious tourists than ourselves, came to the spot; they left us at the seat, and we found them again at another station above the Falls. Coleridge, who is always good-natured enough to enter into conversation with anybody whom he meets in his way, began to talk with the gentleman, who observed that it was a majestic waterfall. Coleridge was delighted with the accuracy of the epithet, particularly as he had been settling in his own mind the precise meaning of the words grand, majestic, sublime, etc., and had discussed the subject with William at some length the day before. “Yes, sir,” says Coleridge, “it is a majestic wate…

Hume's Cutlery

David Hume is renowned for two pieces of cutlery, the guillotine and the fork.

Hume's guillotine is the sharp cut he makes between "is" statements and "ought" statements, to make the point that the former never ground the latter.

His "fork" is the division between what later came to be called "analytic" and "synthetic" statements, with the ominous observation that any books containing statements that cannot be assigned to one or the other prong should be burnt.

Actually, I should acknowledge that there is some dispute as to how well or poorly the dichotomy Hume outlines really maps onto the analytic/synthetic dichotomy. Some writers maintain that Hume meant something quite different and has been hijacked. Personally, I've never seen the alleged difference however hard they've worked to point it out to me.

The guillotine makes for a more dramatic graphic than a mere fork, hence the bit of clip art above.

I'm curious whe…