Tuesday, June 05, 2007

One good turn deserves another

Perry Robinson has answered my answer to the question of why God doesn't just make everyone so good that they don't sin. I said before that I consider the question good, but I don't consider the rebuttal to the answer dialectically successful, which is why I wouldn't be persuaded by the argument even if it were raised not by Perry but by the atheologians he references. I don't consider myself a Thomist, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express before, so I will forge ahead in defense of the Angelic Doctor.

The question was:
I want to know, qua explanation, if the Catholic model can explain why God has Mary immaculately conceived and free from inherited albeit analogical guilt, why not just skip all of the evil in the world and do this for everyone? Or perhaps more strongly, why not create everyone in a state of confirmed grace?

The question I found interesting was the second one; I'm not sure that the first one is even relevant, since Mary's Immaculate Conception did not prevent her from sinning. But if God can, through grace, infallibly prevent everyone from sinning, then why not?

Perry sets out his position as follows:
I agree with Jonathan that there is a purpose for the possibility of evil, but that is not the same thing as evil having a purpose. The purpose of the former is the possibility of virtue for created agents. A necessary condition for the acquisition of virtue is libertarian freedom, with a Kanian type freedom. That of itself does not imply that evil has a purpose. I’d argue then that the Libertarian then has a principled reason why God could not create persons already confirmed in grace, specifically that it would violate the necessary conditions for personhood. (Moreover, there is a signfiicant difference between God redirecting the outcome of evil intentions after the fact, logically speaking, and evil being even consequently necessary for the occurance of some further good. I can argue for the former without the latter and this seems to be the division I want to make and Jonathan doesn’t.)

The problem for me is that Perry hasn't explained why evil actually exists; he has only explained logical conditions for the possibility of evil and virtue. If the libertarian argues that he has a principled reason why God could not create persons already confirmed in grace (i.e., so that they can acquire virtue), he has not thereby offered a reason for the actual existence of such persons, particularly in light of even the possibility of actually existing evil. Moreover, with respect to actual existence, the very concept of redirecting intentions "after the fact" means that the evil in question necessarily exists per accidens. That means evil is an accidental necessity to the existence even of subsequent virtuous persons. Of course, one could deny necessity per accidens, but that would simply produce more problems of evil (e.g., why didn't God make people vanish from existence immediately upon commission of evil?), not to mention seriously demotivating the discussion (e.g., well, I can't be sure I really know anything at all, because I might have sprung into existence with all of my memories in the last nanosecond, and I might cease to exist right about...). The Thomist account IMHO has the virtue of addressing what the actual condition of existents says, and inferring the logical possibilities from there.

On Jonathan’s view, it is much more difficult for me to see how this is an option, seeing that he denies the alternative possibilities condition (AP) on free will. If all that is required is voluntary action without AP’s constituting volition and/or freedom, then creating agents without the possibility of performing morally evil actions seems a genuine possibility. So, if one subscribes to compatibilist type freedom it seems that it was open to God to create a world where there was no possibility of evil and all and only good acts were open to “free” created agents. If that is so, then the existence of evil impugns God’s moral character or his existence. Either disjunct will place theism in a very bad position in terms of an apologetic response to atheism. Either God is not morally perfect and in fact far less so, or God doesn’t exist at all. Since evil exists God either lacks the motivation to preclude it or he doesn’t exist. The assumed premise here is something along the lines of, a perfect moral agent will always eliminate evil when they are able to do so. I find that a very plausible assumption, but perhaps Jonathan doesn’t. I do because I believe in Heaven.

There's a fatal flaw in the argument: if we're talking about actual evil then there is no disjunct. The "very bad position" obtains regardless of why evil actually exists, so long as the assumed premise that a perfect moral agent will always eliminate even the possibility of evil when he is able to do so holds (I say the possibility of evil because Perry's argument is that, for the compatibilist, since God could have created a world with no possibility of evil, He should have). For obviously, even if the existence of free-willed beings only entails the possibility of evil, the simple expedient of making none of them would certainly eliminate evil, and that is clearly within God's ability to do. That has nothing to do with whether you're predestinarian, libertarian, or contrarian; it's a clear logical argument:

1. A perfect moral agent will always eliminate the possibility of evil when he is able to do so (Premise).
2. God is a perfect moral agent (Premise).
3. Therefore, God will always eliminate the possibility of evil when he is able to do so.
4. God would have been able to eliminate the possibility of evil by creating no free agents (Premise).
5. But evil exists (viz., God did not eliminate evil when he could have per 4).
6. 5 contradicts 3.

Consequently, I don't think that even Perry accepts (3) when it comes down to it, regardless of his belief in Heaven, because he surely wouldn't deny (4). And obviously, (4) is no evil; it is not an evil to anyone or anything not to be created. In addition, the fact that there won't be any evil in Heaven does nothing to cure the per accidens necessity of evil, so it doesn't provide any better explanation for the actual existence of evil in view of what I said above either. Frankly, this wasn't Perry's best work, and I was a bit surprised to see people as enthusiastic over the "collateral to another good" argument as they were. I get the impression that this argument was a kind of lifeline against atheism, as if people were on the verge of denying God altogether when (lo and behold!) in came FREE WILL. Too much of Calvin's gloss on Thomas and not enough Thomas, at least if my experience was any indication!

It's not that I don't believe in the alternative possibilities (AP) account of free will BTW. I simply differ from Perry on what metaphysical conditions count as AP. From my perspective, created being requires composition of act and (passive) potency, and this combination of act and potency renders it literally impossible for any created being to have a "God's eye view" on what is actually possible. We can imagine how things in the real world might vary with quite fanciful creativity, but what we are really affirming when we say "God might have done this" or "God might have done that" is God's utter independence from created being. The "Judas" and "Peter" in "God might have damned Peter and saved Judas" aren't the historically-existent individuals we all know, but conceptual placeholders for an affirmation of faith that nothing exists without God causing it to be so, in a manner entirely inscrutable to us. Likewise, we know that we had alternative possibilities not because of some certain knowledge about some other possible world we might have made to exist (because we could not possibly have "knowledge") but because we have had the actual experience of choosing.

Again, Thomism deals with the condition of actual existence, and one of the areas in which it is most rigorous is denying the pretense of knowledge where it isn't even conceptually possible (see, e.g., Thomas's answer to Anselm's "ontological" argument). Michael Liccione, whose sandal I am not even fit to fasten as I crawl the floor of the arena of Thomism, has explained this as accurately as I can imagine it being explained.

So I think if God could have done that kind of good to everyone, he should have done so. But I just don’t think God could have done so without eliminating the freedom and consequently personhood of every and any created person. Jonathan though does think that God could have prevented every moral evil, but for some reason he didn’t. Jonathan thinks that even though God could have prevented every moral evil, this would not necessarily have been doing humanity a great good.

Why? Jonathan appeals to the “interconnectedness between human beings.” In his following comments, I think he means to say something like the following. Humans are connected in such a way that giving grace or the prevention of evil in one circumstance isn’t such that God can give it equally to all in all circumstances without the loss human uniqueness.

That's a fair characterization of my position. It's difficult to imagine any sort of perfectly equivalent set of finite beings composed of act and potency in an absolutely inseparable relationship with every other such being ever created without thinking that they are all going to have to be uniquely situated, meaning that God must relate to each one individually. It's obvious that God could have done otherwise; He could have created no one; He could have placed everyone in a perpetual state of "pure nature" a la Limbo; He could have done all sorts of things that are entirely unknowable to us. But those are evidently not the world in which we live, and it is clear that God did none of these things. He allowed evil to be part of the per accidens existence, and while we can't imagine any idea why, we do know that He has dealt with different people differently.

I simply balk at this answer. Here are some of my reasons for balking. First, given at least a Thomistic picture of God, and grace as divine life, the grace differs not in God but in the recipient. So in fact the same thing is on his own view is given to each and every person, or so it seems to me.

And part of what differs in the recipient is the person's own experience. That's kind of the point; even if the same thing were given, it wouldn't be received in the same way.

And it seems that the same confirming grace is given at least to lots of people, namely the angels and some humans in the eschaton without annihilating their personal uniqueness. For any two persons who receive divine grace to the same degree and hence experience the Beatific vision to the same degree, their uniqueness remains intact. I think it is plausible on Jonathan’s own principles that there are at least two such persons and so if any two (or more) of them can receive grace in the same way and to the same degree in the same circumstance without eliminating their personal uniqueness, then the interconnectedness of persons cannot be a reason for denying to God the possibility of creating everyone without the possibility of performing morally evil actions.

Unsurprisingly, I think it implausible, and actually impossible, that there are any two people who receive divine grace to the same degree if there are any differences among them. Given individual existence as combinations of act and potency, it seems that there absolutely must be. To have identical experiences of the Beatific vision would require that the individuals be identical as far as I can tell. And it would seem that prior to such difference, there would be no actual capacity to experience the beatific vision for any created hypostasis. That's why I mentioned that one might be kept in stasis in a state of "pure nature" as a hypothetical possibility (albeit an apparently pointless one) rather than the beatific vision. Actual grace always encounters someone in the context of life, real situations.

It is also important to notice what I take to be a confusion on Jonathan’s part. On the one hand he seems to agree that God could have created everyone in confirming grace, but on the other hand that God could not have done so. This seems to be the motivation in his appeal to human uniqueness. If the latter is true, then the former is not. In which case, Jonathan agrees in fact with me in principle that God could not have created everyone in comfirming grace. What we disagree about then is not if God could have created everyone in comfirming grace but if God created the Theotokos with it and the reasons why God could not have created everyone with it.

Certainly, in principle, God could have created everyone in a state of grace and pure nature. Of course, "everyone" in that account would not be the same set of people that actually exist, and in the case of people who actually exist, He did not. I see no evidence that it would be possible for the actually existing people to have all been created in a state of grace, and that is my point. It is theoretically possible for some collection of people to have been so created, and it is equally certain that those people would be different than the actually-existent people. Actual individuals aren't fungible; they can't be substituted one for the other. That is the reason the Theotokos received what she did; she was the Theotokos, and no one else is. Why God created the universe He did, the people He did, is a mystery thoroughly beyond even the possibility of human comprehension.

Further, there is an ambiguity in Jonathan’s answer. When he says, “the interconnectedness between human beings isn’t such that what grace was given to one or another person in some particular situation could be equally given to all in all situations without substantially disrupting the entire arrangement and diluting the context in which people have experiences that make them unique” does he mean that the circumstances make the experiences unique or does he mean that the circumstances make the persons unique? I am not sure on his own view of the Beatific Vision why he would think that either was the case. Even if the circumstances or experiences were homogenous in terms of being all and only good, how would that preclude a genuine difference in the degree of reception?

I mean both. It seems relatively obvious to me that all finite combinations of act and potency are unique by their existence qua act and potency, so that the instant any individual actually does anything, he is irreducibly distinguished from every other individual in his experience. That is WHY there are differences in the beatific vision, because there are differences between individuals. That is also why the beatific vision can be experienced both with and without the body.

Certainly Jonathan thinks that there is a genuine difference in reception in the Beatific Vision, even though for every agent who has it, it is all and only good qua vision. If that is the case there, why not make it the case for everyone from the get-go?

Because it wouldn't be the same, on account of the people experiencing it not being the same. If the question is why God prefers these individuals in the beatific vision, those others in perdition, and those others he might have made never existing, good luck figuring that out.

Moreover, appealing to the special vocation of the Theotokos I think does no work for Jonathan. It is simply not the case that the Theotokos can’t have her special vocation without evil in the world. This thesis is entailed by the thesis that the Incarnation would have taken place even without sin. If everyone had been morally perfect and bereft of alternative possibilities with respect to moral evil, and the Incarnation still occurred, the Theotokos still would have had her special vocation. If God can create someone confirmed in grace, then it seems plausible that God can do both, namely give in some measure a confirmation the grace he gave to the Theotokos, on Catholic principles, to all and the Theotokos possess a special vocation.

There's the appeal to "would have" for no good reason. I suppose (or could imagine) that there could have been a Theotokos in some other world with her own special vocation, but that world doesn't exist, and it doesn't prove anything about the one in which we live anyway. Again, we can speculate all day about what God might have done, but we have no real idea of what was possible, and what we do know is that the actual Theotokos was born into a world with evil. If everyone had been morally perfect and bereft of alternative possibilities, then there would be a different set of people. It is thoroughly implausible that God could have done both in this world, because in this world, it obviously isn't true.

Again, the confirmation in grace, given to all in the eschaton doesn’t “wash out” all of the differences between persons. Grace does not obliterate nature by anyone’s reading, save Calvinists and Jansenits and grace isn’t opposed to nature or more specifically created hypostases. The only way I see that it could, would be if person and nature were confused (or if God were absolutely simple) so that we’d need some other principle of individuation, namely evil or a defect, to discern persons.

But to take evil as a principle of individuation places us right back at the Platonic hierarchy where the Good is on top and evil its necessary opposite on the bottom. Good is therefore not autonomous with respect to explanatory power and this signals an implicit dualism.

No defect, just potency and finitude. Good is autonomous with respect to explanatory capacity; we just lack the capacity to know how it is, because it is not within our capacity to have God's own knowledge. We affirm things about God by faith despite our ignorance. It doesn't signal dualism to say that one has no explanation for what it is beyond one's capacity to know.

And I think it is just false that what grounds our deeper experience of God is some vague “interconnectedness” but rather the Incarnation itself. Even though Christ recapitulates all of creation in himself, he does not take on angelic nature, but human nature. Jonathan is looking to general principles when he should be looking to a single concrete case.

On the contrary, I seem to be looking at all of the concrete cases, while Perry is looking at only one and making generalities from there. I honestly think parity is being asserted between existent and non-existent individuals (i.e., nothing), and that's what I find intractable.

What differentiates us in part from the angels is not our rung on the hierarchy of being, but the Incarnation. In any case, it seems flat out false to say that if all receive the grace of confirmation, then there’d be no unique persons. Even on Thomistic principles following Aristotle, we can individuate modes or ways in which people all receive the same grace to preserve personal uniqueness. Ultimately, I don’t think such a move works, but it at least is a plausible way of staving off the conclusion that confirmation in grace implies the elimination of personal distinctions.

Given that you seem to accept as plausible what strikes me as enormously implausible given the Thomist understanding of how those modes are ways are individuated, I can't really speak to whether your opinion of the move working actually applies to my understanding. At any rate, I can't see why my particular version of individuation doesn't fall within the Thomist camp.

So, Jonathan I think is still wrong. Creating everyone confirmed in grace does not imply or entail that said persons would be denied the opportunity to “grow and to have their own experiences and to be their own people.” To think so implies that in order to “be their own people” that evil is necessary, which is false.

No, it is more like to be the people that they are. Creating everyone confirmed in grace does both imply and entail that they wouldn't be the same individuals.

Jonathan advocates some other theses that I am confused about. He writes that God not only tolerates evil acts but does so to give the wicked an opportunity to repent. I agree, but I do so on Libertarian principles. Jonathan is not a Libertarian since he denies the AP condition on free will. So I simply do not know what he means by “opportunity” if the wicked are theologically or metaphysically determined to make the choices that they do.

It simply means that they aren't determined in the exercise of their will; it is within their natural capacity of choice. There is no level of created knowledge that could determine the outcome of their choice, not even the person himself, so he is not being "determined." Within his order of existence, he is free. Ultimately, we affirm that God is the cause of the choice, but since we have no idea how this can be, it's not even particularly relevant for questions of AP. It's not as if we can be virtuous before God through our own natural efforts anyway, so the fact that out actions don't meet the requirements of virtue before God doesn't really trouble me.

Jonathan also writes that to give “sanctifying grace” to all would undermine the entire Christian life a la baptism and the Eucharist. Does he think that it did so with the Theotokos? When she was presumably present with John the Apostle and John administers the Eucharist to the faithful in Ephesus, does she take a pass? If she doesn’t then this implies either that she had a deficient Christian life, or none at all, or Jonathan’s thesis is false. (It’s false.) Moreover, why was Jesus baptized if sin is precluded? Certainly we have a concrete case then of someone being baptized even though there is nothing lacking in this person’s life. Presumably the archetype for the Christian life had the Christian life in full measure without defect as a basis for individuation. As an aside, baptism in its fullest form then seems to me to be an act on creation (water), rather than a washing away of corruption. Baptism regenerates because of Christ’s activity in His baptism rather than the baptism doing something to Christ. (this grounds Protestant confusion concerning it, which is assuaged, they think by making it the fullfillment of an empty legal reqirement.) So I don’t think that if everyone were created confirmed in grace it would necessarily preclude the sacraments.

Speaking for Jonathan, Jonathan's thesis isn't what it is being cast as being, since Jonathan didn't in fact write that giving sanctifying grace to all would undermine "the entire Christian life." I wrote that it would undermine the "entire form of Christian life," and I did mean that. The point isn't that people who have sanctifying grace don't need the Eucharist and baptism or won't participate in the Eucharist or baptism. But that is not the ordinary way in which people experience the Christian life, and the form of Christian life is characterized by most people coming to know Christ through the Church, which is a different experience. I am not saying that it is better or that it is worse, but that it is different, and the people who have experienced Christ that way would not otherwise. And I find it ironic that the exact action of Christ's self-sanctification that is the exemplar for the normativity of this sort of experience is getting cited in favor of the argument that it doesn't really matter how one receives grace.

Certainly Adam and Eve were married prior to the Fall. Granted that they did not on Catholic principles possess confirming grace, but they did possess “original righteousness” and they still partook of a sacrament. Presumably Adam was a priest of God as well. Besides, one wonders why Christians have often understood the Tree of Life in the Garden as bearing the Eucharist if moral perfection would render it useless to a deified person.

My argument certainly wasn't that removal of sin obviates the utility of baptism, and it appears that the degree of concern over the problem of evil is being projected over to me, since everything I say about individuation is somehow transmogrified in a statement about evil. I'm simply talking about how actual people ordinarily experience the Church, and how a uniform pattern of extraordinary deviations from this pattern would likely undermine the pattern. It really had nothing to do with protection from original sin at all, only the individual mechanism by which actual people had particular experiences. I could turn around now and say "What, baptism isn't good enough for you? Has to be Immaculate Conception as well?," but I hope that people realize that would be just as silly.

Jonathan also speaks of God’s “risk” in creating the kinds of agents and circumstance that he has in mind. If everything is determined and/or there are no alternative possibilities of created agents, I simply do not know what he means by “risk.”

The creation of actual, absolutely unique individuals as real combinations of act, potency, and matter. Nothing more, nothing less.

Lastly, Jonathan counsels us to be epistemically humble with regards to the reasons why God permits evil. I agree, but the issue here isn’t if Jonathan in fact meets the conditions on knowledge for the reasons why God permits evil. The issue is metaphysical and apologetical. Even if it were true that we should be epistemically humble and only hope for meager epistemological crumbs from the table of divine knowledge, it would still be the case that Jonathan and the Catholic (and Protestant) picture faces significant problems, and problems that I don’t think the Orthodox one does. Counseling epistemic humility doesn’t remove metaphysical difficulties and it certainly doesn’t silence, persuade atheists and skeptics, or silence the doubts of one’s own heart.

Well, I have to confess I think it would be silly to attempt to solve problems that I don't consider to be problems for the reason that someone else thinks they are problems. As a metaphysical issue, I have good metaphysical reasons to think that the problem is insoluble, not simply difficult but literally beyond the capacity of human reason entirely (as in trying to know the exact position and momentum of a particle simultaneously). There's no good waiting for meager epistemological crumbs, because they can't be had; even what we affirm by faith is nothing but a denial of our capacity for knowledge. If it's a problem, I will face it with equanimity, since I believe that everyone claiming to have a solution to the "problem" has done so by asserting the truth of a proposition that can't possibly be known or an explanation that doesn't really explain anything (e.g., appealing to the capacity for virtue without explaining why it is that God would want virtuous beings to exist if their existence entails the possibility of evil). I don't think there are any real metaphysical difficulties with Thomism, and I don't consider the persuasion of atheists or skeptics to be all that pressing a problem, given that they can deny any argument on a whim if they are determined. Certainly, in my experience with Thomism, there has never been an atheological argument that has any serious traction.

I think what it really turns on that last element you mentioned: "silenc[ing] the doubts of your own heart." Maybe if I felt even the slightest twinge of doubt, I might at least understand what the problem is. But given my existing commitments regarding science, history, and philosophy, I couldn't really move absent a knock-down argument, and I've not seen anything close to a knock-down argument. It would be weird for me to imagine having to convince myself to stay where I am, because it's the other way around for me: I find it hard to imagine how I could ever be convinced to do otherwise. I guess that's fides quaerens intellectum for you.

But I don’t think we need be that humble, at least apologetically speaking. I think rather what is appropriate here is Socratic humility. Socrates didn’t know what the truth was, but he knew falsehood when he saw it. Given the imago dei and the falsity of Calvinism and Jansenism, I think I can know a bad reason when I see it. I do not need to know what God’s reasons in fact are, I need only be able to properly identify what he reasons weren’t, namely bad reasons. I take answers of the kind of “God just loves some people more” given by Michael Liccone to be a bad reason.

The thing is, at least with respect to the problem of evil and this whole free will deal, I don't think there is a reason knowable by human intellect. I don't know how that turns out to be a bad reason. ISTM that you are taking "God just loves some people more" as having far more positive content than it actually does. That's not an explanation; it's just a description.

And given say Thomistic or Scotistic theological determinism, God could have created a world such that no one ever sinned even wiuthout confirming grace, thereby rendering Jonathan’s defense based on the Theotokos moot. On Scotistic and Thomistic grounds, the elect unto glory do not have confirming grace at conception and yet I see no reason why the elect could not have been theologically or metaphysically determined to always choose the right and why every created agent could not have been one of their number.

Sure. And those people wouldn't have been the same people in the actual world. Until you discard the blatantly false assumption that people are fungible, this whole "God could have created a world..." line is falling on deaf ears.

As to evil, I can’t see any significant difference between what Jonathan offers and what Plotinus does. Plotinus (and Augustine, Hegel, et al) argue that every past evil while evil in and of itself, not only contributes to the good of the whole but goodness if deficient without it. The silence between the notes makes the whole piece of music sound better. I simply balk at the suggestion that my three year old suffering and dying of Leukemia or the children at the Russian school in Beslan who suffered and died somehow makes the whole world better in the end. The Good doesn’t need evil to be the Good. If it did, it wouldn’t be the Good.

The Good doesn't need anything to be the Good. But all that evil that is necessary per accidens is necessary for the existence of all that follows, and in that sense, nothing that follows exists without it. It is part of the individual being that actual individual, and in that sense, it could not be what it was but for the evil. That's not a product of God's need (contra Plotinus), but of ours. We can't exist except as actual act/potency/matter composites, and part of that story is that we are inextricably part of a whole creation, inseparable from it. The fact that you even know about the children in Beslan means that evil is a necessary part of your existence; you aren't you without that happening. That's the cost, the risk, of actual individuality; we aren't in a position to deny that evils are a necessity for the actual individuals living today. And the problem of evil is why God saw fit to create actual individuals despite actual evils, which isn't solved by appeal to the possibility they might be virtuous.


At 8:52 AM, Blogger Mike L said...


Forgive me for not commenting on this earlier. It rebuts Perry quite well and is entirely compatible with the position I defend.

Great job.



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