Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The comment that threw into doubt my previous ideas about the problem of pain

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It is from Orson Scott Card, writing in the Mormon Times, and it runs as follows:

(Please don't write in with all the sophistries designed to explain the "timeless" God, or with "higher" math invoking multiple dimensions — trust me, I've heard them all, and they still come down to the nonexistence of a God who is actively involved in the universe of causation.)

This comment hit me... well, if not exactly like a thunderbolt, then like something which had been growing in my mind for many months, pressing outward, and which had reached the point where it was ready to burst-free.

Card's impatience with overcomplexity, the suspicion that I may have been soothing (and deluding) myself with pseudo-explanations that satisfied only because they were either meaningless or incomprehensible, the idea that by answering the question in this way I was creating a God who, even if he existed, was so abstract and uninvolved that he could be neither Father nor Saviour... All this emerged from reading the above 'aside'.

Others will not be in the same place or state as myself, and the above will seem trivial, meaningless or simply misguided; by either way it was this which did it for me, at that particular time and place.

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The context is an article about God's Foreknowledge, from which I include some excerpts, to put the above quote into context.


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We teach our children to anticipate the results of their actions. I call this "practical prophecy." They can't know with certainty, but they should be able to anticipate that hitting baseballs in the front yard is likely to break a window.

This is the essence of accountability, isn't it? We can't hold children responsible for their choices until they understand cause-and-effect.

Our knowledge, however, is imperfect, to say the least. But Jesus said that God is perfect, and expects us to aim for that same goal. One meaning of "perfect" implies completeness; another suggests that there be no errors.

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How perfect is the foreknowledge of God? This question is the source of great anxiety and many potential errors in our understanding of our Father.

When bad things happen, many people believe that it must be part of God's plan; he, knowing all things past, present and future, must have known this thing would happen.

Since he is all-powerful, and he did not prevent this great evil, it must have been his will that it happen.

And since he is good, what seems evil to us must be good on some level beyond our understanding.

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This idea is in the English language in the old phrase "God willing" — whatever plans we make, they are contingent on the will of God.

Many believe that everything that happens is the will of God. Either he causes it, or he is content that it happen. If we only understood his purposes, we would understand that all things are good.

The problem comes with the idea that God knows everything and planned everything to the last detail...

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I've been thinking about this since I was a kid, and at various times I've held almost every shade of opinion on the matter. But always I came up against the serious problem of how to reconcile human free will with God's perfect foreknowledge.

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For a time, I believed the explanation that God knew us so well in premortality that he could join together all the choices that all his children would make through all of human history and figure out the end from the beginning.

Then I did a little math (in my feeble way) and calculated that to know all the causal webs through all of human history, from storms and climate and earthquakes to every decision of every human being, would require more bits of information than there are molecules in the universe.

I might be a little off, of course, since my data are incomplete, but I thought: That's an awful lot of trouble to go to. Couldn't God have an easier way to deal with foreknowledge?

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Then there's the idea — neoplatonic, and definitely not a doctrine of the Restoration — that God stands outside of time, living in an eternal "now."

The problem is that such a concept of God is as good a way of defining atheism as I can imagine. Time and causality are inescapably linked. For God to not exist in time is to say that God cannot actually do anything, because that would require that he exist in time.

There was a moment before he acted, and then he acted, and now his action is in the past...

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(Please don't write in with all the sophistries designed to explain the "timeless" God, or with "higher" math invoking multiple dimensions — trust me, I've heard them all, and they still come down to the nonexistence of a God who is actively involved in the universe of causation.)

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In recent years, I've reached the conclusion that while I cannot, from scripture or by reason, determine the truth of the matter, there is a way to account for the foreknowledge of God without compromising our freedom or requiring that God have everything nailed down in every detail in advance...

God has given us a world in which things happen according to natural laws. This includes the natural laws that govern the behavior of the natural man, as well as the spiritual laws that govern the children of God.

Regardless of what happens to us, God judges us by what we do in response. People who live through horrible trials that most of us shudder to imagine will reveal their true character in those times of duress.

But people who seem to lead charmed lives where only good things happen to them manage to have just as many opportunities to be wicked and miserable, and as many to be good and kind.

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As for God's larger plans for the history of nations, he knows human nature.

Societies that behave in certain ways destroy themselves — history shows it again and again. It does not take specific foreknowledge for the Lord to make such prophecies.

Plus, God knows what he is going to do. As often as not, prophecies are actually promises: I will do this, he says, and I will do that. These prophecies will be fulfilled because God will keep his word.

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To my way of thinking, this is all the foreknowledge required for God to be perfectly just and loving, and for this life to do a perfect job of testing us while leaving us morally free to choose according to our uncreated, eternal nature...

God's plan for us has no errors in it, though we are free, during mortality, to err to our heart's content. For in this life we cannot cause any eternal harm except to ourselves (Matthew 15:11).

God's perfect foreknowledge needs to be no more than this: In this life, we will freely show who we are, so his judgment will be just. That is the end, and he knew it from the beginning; all his promises are fulfilled in this...

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9 comments:

  1. The basic conflict here seems to be between a sort of Monism, which affirms that everything that exists is entirely dependent on the action of God and thus directly intended by Him, and some species of Pluralism, which postulates an ontological something-distinct-from-God, which produces the effects that God did not intend. (In general, the Monism idea is easy to question on the issue of whether God intended any given unfortunate event or not. If He intended Adam and Eve to obey His prohibition, what power in the universe existed to allow Adam and Eve to choose otherwise? If He secretly intended them to disobey, then what is the meaning of their sin, and the immense suffering their sin permitted? The Charles Williams quote posted earlier, as far as I can tell, tries to make it seem more absurd by picturing God as directly crucifying Himself.)

    The most primitive attempt to set something apart from God is Manichaeism, which postulates an ontologically basic Evil. This does not work, simply because Evil has no coherent definition apart from being a negation of that which is Good.

    A slightly more sophisticated attempt is Mormon materialism. Matter is not intrinsically evil (that is the Gnostic fallacy), it is rather indifferent to the Logos; its natural motions can work against it just as easily as they might work for it. As far as I can reinterpret the doctrine to make sense to me, the Mormon God remains God, rather than just a powerful space alien, because He is in perfect harmony with the impersonal Logos. (This gives some wiggle room for the Mormons to unpack the Trinity into a tritheistic Godhead. The Mormon 'presiding council' does not need to be One to be in harmony with one another, they are in perfect harmony with one another because they are all in harmony with the Logos.) God's task is to organize the matter of the Universe in accordance to the Logos, the completion of which task incidentally implies a restitution for all evil that occurred in the past. (Cue endless debate off to the side regarding the exact extent to which that will be possible.)

    The loophole generally favoured by monists is to affirm free will, which God created, but which does not necessarily fulfil His intentions, and enshrine the paradox of that idea as a mystery.

    The other alternatives I can see are a more radical monism, or the introduction of some other quantity more basic than matter or evil or free will, that can upset God's plans and require Him to devise new ones. The recalcitrant nature of matter, or the sins of unsaved conscious beings, or the origin of purposive evil and arbitrary suffering, can then be analyzed as a function of their participation in this more basic quantity.

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  2. @ Arakawa. Blimey, that's a good comment!

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  3. I'm not impressed with Card's argument at all:

    Then there's the idea — neoplatonic, and definitely not a doctrine of the Restoration — that God stands outside of time, living in an eternal "now."

    The problem is that such a concept of God is as good a way of defining atheism as I can imagine. Time and causality are inescapably linked. For God to not exist in time is to say that God cannot actually do anything, because that would require that he exist in time.


    Then alter the phrase slightly to say not that God is "outside" time, in an eternal now, but that he is in all times, in an eternal now. Problem solved...? I suspect I'm missing something.

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  4. I came up against the serious problem of how to reconcile human free will with God's perfect foreknowledge.

    Children - and a great many dimwitted adults - have free will, and yet their actions are extremely predictable. The gap between you and a child is much, much smaller than the gap between God and even the most intelligent human. Ergo, we can have free will and still remain all to predictable from His perspective. As OSC said, He knows human nature...

    to know all the causal webs through all of human history, from storms and climate and earthquakes to every decision of every human being, would require more bits of information than there are molecules in the universe.

    Does God store knowledge using bits of information - let alone bits stored in the universe? Or is this like saying that the largest possible mathematical calculation is limited by the size of the abacus we can build?

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  5. It always amazes me to see people who imagine God as a thinking, reasoning, logical, self-immersed, forward-planning, manipulating, all-seeing, desire-driven, egotistical personality.
    How utterly human, to imagine such a thing. God created in their own image!
    I imagine readers of this blog would be very interested in knowing more about God.
    Well, a good start might be to minimize self-importance, and allow God to be whatever God is, without assigning human traits to It.

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  6. My own view is that any account of God or of our own eternal existence that doesn't have an amphibious character where we are simultaneously eternal/outside time/present at every moment and also present in time is going to be spiritually unsatisfactory. I find it difficult to bear the thought that the past with all its happy moments, all its little loves, especially with my wife and children, is irretreivably lost. No one has been able to offer a satisfactory account of it. Some of the short fiction of Russell Kirk explains why some version of eternity as participation in all times (or at least all past times) all at once is necessary.

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  7. Arakawa,
    that's a decent explanation of a good Mormon approach. I say this as Mormon. But a likelier explanation would have the Mormons offering the same explanation as your free-will monists, except that free will (the essential core of our being which chooses) isn't created by God.

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  8. I am not surprised that the neo-platonic idea of the supratemporality of God seems like sophistry to Card. Having said that, “For God to not exist in time is to say that God cannot actually do anything,” he makes it plain that he has not understood the concept at all.

    The supratemporality of God does not imply that God does not exist in time. It implies that time exists in eternity, which forms the environing context of all temporal relations. It is simple to show this.

    1. You can’t get something from nothing.

    2. So every contingent thing whatsoever – and whensoever – must arise from something prior thereto.

    3. Prior to all contingent events, then – whether temporal or not – there must exist a being which is not contingent.

    4. Things that are not contingent are necessary: they must exist, no matter what, and in every conceivable state of affairs.

    5. Necessary things are therefore eternal.

    6. Eternity is therefore prior to time – logically, of course, not temporally [Psalm 90:2]

    7. So time exists in the context of eternity [John 8:58; Exodus 3:14].

    8. If there were some sort of conflict between being in time and being in eternity, then, there could be no such thing as a temporal being.

    9. There are in fact temporal beings.

    10. So there is no conflict between being or acting in time and being or acting in eternity. [Matthew 28:20; John 14:16]

    11. To be in time is, among other things, to be in eternity [Acts 17:28; Ecclesiastes 3:11].

    Adam G. has it exactly correct when he says, “… any account of God or of our own eternal existence that doesn't have an amphibious character where we are simultaneously eternal/outside time/present at every moment and also present in time is going to be spiritually unsatisfactory.” Indeed. Furthermore, any such account is going to be incoherent.

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  9. As Bruce has stated 1) God created this reality for us and not some other, and 2) He allowed for the possibility of extremely horrible acts.

    As Christians, we do not see God as a uncaring clockmaker who started a mechanistic universe and left. God is an active participant who sent His only begotten Son to die on the cross.

    In that context, some say "pain is punishment for our sins" or "pain is not real (in some abstract sense)." Yet, it must be admitted that He create us, in His image, to feel pain as real and a very serious problem. Bruce raises the extreme problem of child torture. A child can not understand "pain is not real (in some abstract sense)" and realizes the pain as a very real and terrible crisis.

    Yet somehow we must believe a God who truly loves and cares about us individual, who sent His only Son to perform miracles such as cure individuals disease and pain, allows for a world where a child could experience extremely real and unmitigated pain without intervening.

    There still has not been a good answer to this, except for the answers that He, for some reason, can't intervene in those cases.

    The problem for me with the question itself and the answer is: why would God send his beloved Son to earth knowing he would be tortured? What loving Father, in a human sense, would knowingly send his Son to torture and allow His Son to be tortured without intervening while he yells "Father why have you forsaken me?"

    And I see why many commenters do not want to proceed in this line of questioning.

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