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The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil Paperback – December 11, 2006
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"This is a well-written consideration of a perennial topic, written by a veteran teacher who knows how to make abstract ideas understandable through the use of relevant examples.... Recommended for academic and larger public libraries." (Augustine J. Curley, Library Journal, November 1, 2006)
About the Author
- Item Weight : 11.3 ounces
- Paperback : 272 pages
- ISBN-10 : 082649241X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0826492418
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.57 x 8.5 inches
- Publisher : Continuum; 1st edition (December 11, 2006)
- Language: : English
- Customer Reviews:
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The author, Brian Davies, is a Dominican priest and a professor at the Jesuit Fordham University. He is the literary executor of Thomistic scholar Herbert McCabe. Davies writes from a staunchly Thomistic background, and liberally sprinkles his text with quotations from McCabe. Nonetheless, this book does not read as particularly "Catholic," so much as reads as a rigorously philosophical exploration which follows the arguments to their conclusions. Davies is the editor of Aquinas' "On Evil." He seriously knows evil.
Davies organizes the book into nine chapters.
Chapter One is "The Problem of Evil." In this chapter, Davies "tees up" the issue of the problem of evil by introducing the problem as framed by David Hume. The various fictional interlocutors in Hume's "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" basically treated God as simply a really powerful person, with no real thought given to what it means to be transcendent and infinite, as wells as the Creator and the sustainer of all existence, as if the difference between God and creation were only a matter of degree. (p. 11.) Under this view, the palpable reality of suffering and evil in the world counts against a divine being who must either be as morally good as we are - caring, sacrificing, concerned - or forfeit some basic attribute of God, citing Epicurus's "old question." (p. 9.)
The remainder of the chapter explores some of the contemporary philosophers who believe that the "problem of evil" ("POE") counts as evidence against God's existence. Davies then marshals some of the classic rejoinders to the POE, such as (a) the free will defense, (b) the "unreality of evil" defense, (c) the "means and ends" approach, and (d) the "we can't see all the picture" approach, (e) the "best of all possible worlds" approach, and the (f) the "God suffers also" approach. These rejoinders are probably fairly obvious from their titles.
Chapter Two is "God the Creator." Davies' basic thesis is that we can't address how God interacts with the POE until we have to have some understanding of God (as best we can have, at least.) Davies builds up an understanding of God by defining God's attributes in a presentation that follows Thomas's Summa Theologiae's Questions 3 through 19 closely (See p. 33.)
Davies starts with a discussion of why we can believe in God's existence. Davies notes that a feature of human linguistics is that we recognize that things might not be as they are. The fact that it is raining today implies that it might not have been raining. This linguistic feature recognizes a feature of our reality - namely, that we live in a world of contingency. Things exist and happen, but they might not have existed or happened, which leads to the question of why individual things exist and then to the question of why anything exists.
The asking of the question "why do things exist?" is a reasonable question insofar as we can reasonably expect an answer. David Hume famously argued that the "why do things exist?" question may not have an answer. Hume's explanation was that cause may be separated from effect "in the imagination," which shows, therefore, that the idea of an effect without a cause is not "absurd," which makes it logically possible, which makes the "why do things exist?" question illogical. As Davies points out, according Elizabeth Anscombe, the ability to hold something in the imagination says nothing about reality. (Another point is that Hume's approach seems to commit itself to the same "exists in the mind/exists in reality" conflation -albeit weaker - that atheists regularly criticize in Anselm's Ontological Proof.) Further, contrary to Hume, people associate cause and effect in reality because of their experiences which confirm their expectations, and the fact that expectations are expectations is no reason to discount common sense. (p. 38.)
Davies then goes on to discuss why we might expect existing things to have an external cause. Davies describes an argument in which we take something, identify its nature, and note that other things of like nature might exist but do not, which tells us that the nature of the item does not account for its existence, which in turn tells us that something outside of the thing's nature accounts for existence. (p. 41) Davies then notes that "And if the existence of nothing in the universe is accountable for in terms of its nature, the existence of the universe as a whole (and at any time) requires an external (agent-) cause."(Id.) (Davies views the universe as nothing more than the set of all existing things.) Thus, all existing things are composed of things that have a quality of existence (esse) and a nature. The quality of existence comes from outside the nature of the existing thing, i.e., an existing thing is a composite of the things "nature" and its "existence."
Davies tackles Kant's famous objection that "being is not a real predicate, i.e., a concept of something that could add to the concept of a thing." (p. 46.) Saying that "there are rats in New York subways" says nothing about what rats are. Nonetheless saying that "rats exist" makes a true affirmation about rats. (p. 47.) Saying that something exists may not tell us what the thing is but it tells us something, e.g.,we can distinguish between Davies' cat "Smokey" and the last living (but now dead) dinosaur. Because Smokey "exists," we know that Smokey is a "genuinely existing individual," there to be analyzed. (p. 48.)
At this point, "God" is an explanation to the question "why is there something than nothing." "God," at this point, stands for the reason that explains how something outside the nature of everything in the universe supplies existence to everything in the universe. The use of "God" as a "placeholder" to name this explanation is reasonable, according to Davies, because it is a convention used to name the Creator of everything. However, at this point, there is nothing more to the notion of "God" than that which explains why there is something rather than nothing.
Chapter Three is "Identifying God." This chapter is good walk-through of the process that Aquinas uses to build up the attributes of God. Reading it would probably save countless giga-hours of time wasted on arguments with internet atheists.
Davies rejects any notion of God as a "person" in any sense that we would conventionally understand person to mean. (p. 58 - 61.) Davies rejects the idea of God as an immaterial conscious individual with thoughts, beliefs, memories and hopes because that would suppose that "God is nothing but an inhabitant of the universe (albeit an invisible inhabitant.)" (p. 61.)
Davies then introduces the "via negative" approach of considering what God is not. God does not have a body. God is not an individual in the sense that he is one of many because that would mean a separation of existence from "nature." "Yet if God makes the difference between there being something rather than nothing, the existence of God cannot derive from something other than God. Nor can it causally derive from God, for that would mean that God, so to speak, causally precedes himself (exists before he exists and brings it about that he exists), which is not a possible scenario (for it is, surely, self-evidently true that something which does not exist cannot cause itself to exist.) (p. 66.) Likewise, God cannot be subject to change since God is the source of all change, all coming to be of everything else. (p. 68.) Yet, God is not static or inert since he brings about everything to exist which does exist. (p. 72.)
Davies also dislikes the idea of God's "intervention" in the world. Talk of "intervention" presupposes that there is an absence of God from the world, until God returns to an active role in it. (p. 75.) God doesn't intervene because He is constantly in the world, sustaining it and creating it moment by moment. (Id.) This kind of thinking effectively denies that "miracles" are instances of "divine intervention" because all of creation is a divine intervention. Davies quotes James F. Ross for the image that "[t]he being of the cosmos is like a song on the breath of a singer." (p. 127.)
All of this makes God quite "odd," according to Davies. God is the source of everything but not an item in the universe. (p. 78.) God acts on things not as something but as a source of existence. (Id.) God is something with a nature that can be distinguished from the individual it is. (Id.)
Chapter Four is "God's Moral Standing." This is the chapter where things began to get "dicey." Davies essential point is that speaking of God as being "morally good" is a kind of category error because God is not a moral agent.
Davies starts by noting that theologians have often equated God's goodness with God being morally good. These discussions often seem lapse into an embarrassing way of equating God's goodness with God being "well behaved" as if God belonged to a moral community and had an obligation to follow a set of moral rules. (p. 86; 104.) The idea that God is "morally good" because he is "well-behaved" strikes Davies as an absurdity - particularly in light of the quality of God's oddness - which causes him to re-examine the question of whether God can be described as having the quality of moral goodness. (p. 87.) (At one point, Davies notes that "much contemporary discussion of God and evil...reads like an end of term report on God's performance." (p. 103.).)
Davies is not principally interested in theology or exegeting scripture, but he does note that Biblical view of God as being corporeal is something that is adjudicated philosophically from the notion of God as being outside of Creation over conflicting Bible passages. The idea that God does not have a body is a negative understanding of God in that it does not say what God is but what he is not. Similarly, Davies views the God's role as outside of Creation as another negative proposition, a "No Entry" sign saying God is not a moral agent. (p. 92.) (Davies also offers a throw-away line that the notion that God is good "really only comes into its own in post-biblical theological and philosophical reflection (maybe because of the influence of St. Augustine, who, at one point in his life had real problems with evil...." (p. 101.) This is a fascinating if opaque observation that merits exploration.)
A key point in Davies' argument is an emphasis on and recognition of God as "radically incomprehensible." (p. 92.) God is not a person with the wants, needs and desires of a person. (p. 93.) According to Davies, the formula God is a person is a relatively recent one (Id.) and does not fit in with biblical accounts which are more inclined to emphasize God as an awe-inspiring mystery distinct from creation. (p. 94.) Likewise, although the Bible speaks of God's righteousness, that righteousness tended to mean that God kept his covenantal promises. (p. 95.)
Chapter Five is "How Not To Exonerate God: I." Davies considers and rejects the Free Will Defense. Insofar as God sustains everything in being at all times as the source of being itself. God is responsible for human actions as much as for the existence of Mt. Everest. (p. 122.) When a human freely chooses to act, he freely chooses because God gave the human existence and the ability to make free choices. (p. 126 - 128.) People are free because God causes their freedom; God is not a threat to their freedom. (Id.) But God could have chosen to create people who would freely choose good, according to Davies.
I have always had problems with following this argument. The idea of causing the free choice of good may seem problematic - a contradiction - except on two points. First, all free choices involve a choice of some good. Presumably a created universe that presented only good choices would not involve a constraint on freedom. Second, perhaps God could have chosen to constrain the range of choices. Our choices are presently constrained by our natures, but we don't consider this an abridgment of freedom. Would constraining our natures even further be an abridgment of freedom? Presumably at some point it would, I imagine. In either event, I would have to wonder what these alternatives would mean to our ability to describe ourselves as human in those circumstances.
Davies also rejects arguments that seek to justify evil through good results. Suffering might cause some goods, such as fortitude, but we would hardly call a moral agent who organizes evil for that purpose as "morally good." (p. 130.)
Chapter Six is How Not To Exonerate God: II. In this chapter, Davies runs through and discounts the remaining justifications of God as a morally good agent. Thus, Davies rejects the idea that good could be made better by a "little evil," i.e., his cat's good health would not be improved by a little sickness. Davies also rejects the idea that evil is only an illusion of goodness masquerading as evil.
Davies rejects the argument that evil is a punishment, perhaps for original sin. His argument is that punishment of one person may inflict evil on another, such as a family when a father is sent to prison. This fact would seem to make God's moral goodness in inflicting punishment on others problematic. Interestingly, Davies rejects the notion that evil is suffered because of original sin because he can make no sense of the idea that people would be punished for actions committed before they were born. (p. 155.)
Davies rejects the "we can't see all the picture" because it is consequentialist. It implies that suffering now is justified by something later. (p. 159.)
Davies reject the notion that this is the "best of all possible worlds." He accepts Aquinas point that God cannot make something with a better nature than he created it with, since that would change the nature of the thing into something else, but he thinks that it is obvious that (a) God could have created the world with "one more saint" or with humans who were freely disposed to do only good. (p. 164 - 165.)
Finally, Davies rejects the "suffering God" approach as inconsistent with God's impassible nature as defined philosophically. (p. 166 - 168.)
Chapter Seven is "Evil, Causation and God." Davies returns to the Thomistic thread here. God is the Creator. Everything that God creates is good insofar as it exists. Evil is not created by God because evil is the gap between the way something actually is and the way it ought to be. Evil, therefore, is "parasitic" on good and cannot exist without good. (p. 179.) God is responsible and a cause of good, but is not the creator of evil, which has "no existence" in itself. God has does not will evil except insofar as he creates good. (p. 180.) With respect to natural evils - "evil suffered" in Davies terminology - the evil is usually a conflict of goods, but God does not directly will evil. (p. 182.) With respect to moral evils - "evil done" - we can trace the cause of such evils to some source other than God, i.e., to a deficiency in the proper ordering of the will to a proper end. (p. 189.)
So far, so good. The real issue is God's failure to prevent evils from occurring. (p. 190.) It is here where things get extremely dicey. God sustains the universe by continuous creation. How can we say that God has a duty to create? God is not under any moral obligations and he has no wants or needs to satisfy. He creates as an outpouring of his own goodness. Isn't criticizing God like complaining about free ice-cream. (That last was my own thought.) Because God freely creates, he is free to create how he chooses. No one can frame an argument that god has to create or that He has to create better than he has created. (p. 192.)
Chapter Eight is "Goodness, Love and Reasons." For me this was the most emotionally difficult and philosophically wrenching chapter of the book. Davies argues from the "radical otherness" of God that our talk of God's love and God's reasons are nothing more than a kind of category error. As humans, we can speak of human love and reason, but human love and reason are known to us from our humanity, which is limited and dependent. We love because we have wants and needs we want and need to satisfy. We reason in order to fill those wants and need.
God, however, has no needs or wants or desires. He has everything in himself. God does not even reason. God knows and His knowledge creates reality. How then can we speak of God having a reason to permit evil? Likewise, how can we speak of God loving anybody, aside from "loving" as an intellectual exercise of willing the good of the other, and it seems painfully obvious that God does not will everyone's good completely all the time. The image of God as Father is a woeful misstatement of God's relationship to man in terms of reality and philosophical argument.
Quite simply, Wow! At this point, what more would an atheist be looking for in order to validate their (dis)belief?
Chapter Nine is "God, Evil and Goodness." In this chapter, Davies starts with the proposition that we know that God exists and we know how the world works. In light of what we know, it would seem that God cannot be described as a moral actor in that he has none of the attributes that we would expect from a moral agent, e.g., belonging to a moral community, being part of the universe, being able to provide reasons for conduct and having moral obligations. Humans who would judge God are dependent on God and vastly different from Him. (p. 210.) Consequently, discussing evil in terms of God's moral goodness is a "category error." God is not something to be given a pass/fail grade for "good behavior."
At the end of the chapter, Davies does talk about the love of God in the Trinity and the Incarnation. While God in His divine nature has the attribute of impassibility, Christ in his human nature is passable, and can suffer and love. Davies does not spend much time on the theological implications of this point since he is not a theologian.
Appendix: Is God Morally Indifferent? Davies argues that God is not morally indifferent in that God creates all that is good, sustains the good, in His actions communicates love by willing and sharing His good with us, and has His will always fixed on the good.
Davies certainly satisfies his charge of proving philosophically that the existence of evil is not inconsistent with the existence of God, but it feels like the candle was not worth the flame. The end result of Davies' book seems to be a resolution of the dilemma of God's omnipotence, omniscience, love, and evil (pick any three, but evil must be included) by jettisoning love.
As a believer, this may be good philosophy but it is awful for the soul. I had two reactions, unusual for me.
The first was that I recapitulated Martin Luther's move in the face of his own horror at the prospect of a nominalist God who was entirely "other." I found myself clinging to the revealed word of God in the Bible and the Sacraments. Davies' description might be right, I pondered, but we have God's promise that God will not renege on.
The second reaction was when I thought, what about Jesus? If God is so "other," why the Incarnation? We may not be able to assign a reason for the Incarnation, but it seems to be a sure sign of God's involvement with humanity. As St. Thomas Aquinas explained about the Incarnation and the Passion - "[N]or does anything so stimulate to love more than that anyone should know himself to be loved." - (Aquinas, On Reasons for Our Faith against the Muslims, Armenians and Greeks. ch. 5.)
One of Davies' targets in his book seems to be on modern philosophers and theologians who want to see a suffering God, or who want to explain God as if He were someone we could give an end of term progress report for "good behavior." Clearly that kind of thinking is wholly wrong, and Davies' book is a useful corrective.
But we don't need too much of an over-correction, either. God is love, and in Jesus, I'm sure Aquinas would say, not just a deracinated and intellectual sort of analogy to love, but rather a dynamic and caring involvement with the created world. That topic however was beyond the scope of this book.
I recommend this book for anyone with a grounding or interest in Aquinas or the issue of the POE. I am not sure that I would give it to anyone who would not recognize it for a tightly reasoned slice of philosophy and might think that it was intended to provide pastoral guidance.
Then, Davies interacts with many of the major theodicies of the 20th century and explains where he finds fault with them. Next, he defends the privation view of evil at length and discusses the implications of this with respect to whether God can be thought of as authoring, creating, or causing evil. Following St. Thomas Aquinas, Davies explains how God can be the creator of all things at every moment they exist and yet not be thought of as *causing sin*, even if he is causally involved in *acts of sin*.
The book contains copious endnotes as Davies interacts with many critics. One will come away from this book with a deeper understanding of the issues and a respect for Davies' analysis of the God of classical theism.