Friday, July 14, 2017

The Soteriological Drama

It is interesting to see the stories people make up about why their supposedly maximally good and loving God would allow so much evil, pain, and suffering in the world.  These stories, known as "theodicies", are an attempt to explain away our observations of the world in the face of apparently contradictory assumptions about the qualities of God.  Most of them try to make the case that it's all for our own good - that we need all these bad things in our lives in order to build or prove our character, so that God can know we are worthy of spending eternity basking in his presence.  But every theodicy I have ever heard sounds like a just-so story   It provides an unlikely explanation that might be fascinating to a child, but doesn't stand up to any serious scrutiny, either from an evidential or logical perspective.

Let us take a look a Hinman's extended theodicy, which he calls the "Soteriological Drama", which he discusses at The Religious A Priori, here.  It starts out in a fairly standard way, with the usual  assertion that mankind's ability to do evil is essential for his salvation:
(1)God's purpose in creation: to create a Moral Universe, that is one in which free moral agents willingly choose the Good.
(2) Moral choice requires absolutely that choice be free (thus free will is necessitated).

(3) Allowance of free choices requires the risk that the chooser will make evil choices

(4)The possibility of evil choices is a risk God must run, thus the value of free outweighs all other considerations, since without there would be no moral universe and the purpose of creation would be thwarted.
The first thing to note about this is that it says nothing at all about natural pain and suffering.  Hinman notes this fact, but says nothing more about it.  It addresses only human-caused evil, and leaves us wondering why, under this theodicy, a child should suffer and die from some disease without ever having a chance to demonstrate his moral character.  Furthermore, it is packed with assumptions for which I can see little or no justification.

(1a) How does Hinman (or anyone else) presume to know what God's purpose is?  Maybe God just prefers to let us do what we please, and doesn't care whether or not we end up in heaven.  (This would be more consistent with observed reality than the just-so theodicy.)
(2a) If he wants us to have free will, why does he give us physical bodies in the first place?  After all our bodies and our brains are governed by physical reality.  There is causal determination in the physical world, and neuroscience tells us that our mental function is no exception to that rule.  Why wouldn't God just make us to be spiritual beings, who would be truly free to choose without the constraints of physical laws?
(3a) Even if someone is free to make evil choices, why does that mean the rest of us must suffer as a consequence?  Maybe God could allow people to live in a virtual world, where they can make their choices without harming any innocent victims, perhaps committing all manner of atrocities, but only upon simulated victims.
(4a) Is it really a risk that God must accept?  In the virtual world scenario, there is no risk - no real harm done.

Joe then addresses a common objection from skeptics: Why doesn't God make his presence known to us?  His answer is rather bizarre, in my opinion.  If we know there is a God, and we know what he wants and what the consequences of our actions are, then it wouldn't be a mystery, and we would be much more likely to live free of sin.  And this is the introduction to the extended version of his theodicy:
(5) Life is a "Drama" not for the sake of entertainment, but in the sense that a dramatic tension exists between our ordinary observations of life on a daily basis, and the ultiamte[sic] goals, ends and purposes for which we are on this earth.

(6) Clearly God wants us to seek on a level other than the obvious, daily, demonstrative level or he would have made the situation more plain to us

(7) We can assume that the reason for the "big mystery" is the internalization of choices. If God appeared to the world in open objective fashion and laid down the rules, we would probably all try to follow them, but we would not want to follow them. Thus our obedience would be lip service and not from the heart.

(8) therefore, God wants a heart felt response which is internationalized[sic] value system that comes through the search for existential answers; that search is phenomenological; introspective, internal, not amenable to ordinary demonstrative evidence.
I say this whole concept is bizarre because it defies reason at every level.  If knowing for sure that God exists would make us less likely to sin, isn't that in line with God's objective?  Apparently not.

(5a) If this drama is not for entertainment, then why must we go through with it?  An omniscient God already knows the outcome.  He is well aware before we ever take our first breath which of us have the moral character to stay with him for eternity, so it seems to me that playing out this drama serves no real purpose except for his entertainment.
(6a) God wants us to seek for the right path, which presumably means that we have to make the correct choices in what we believe.  Note that this isn't simply a matter of morality, because human instinct alone allows us to live without inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on others, regardless of whether we think God exists.  So in this way, Hinman introduces a whole new dimension to his theodicy.  It's not good enough to be a moral person.  We also have a responsibility to believe, despite the lack of evidence.  But this mystery about what we choose to believe does nothing to answer the question of why there is evil.  In other words, it seems to be a superfluous addition to the theodicy that simply adds an extra burden to our lifetime responsibilities: Can we set aside our intellect and choose to believe what the objective evidence doesn't tell us?
(7a) Our obedience would be lip-service?  Think about this for a moment.  What he is saying is that if one believes that God exists, as Hinman does, then his morality is without merit.  If this is true, then God should assure that nobody believes in him, and then see whether we still have the moral character to be good people without the inducement of divine reward and punishment.
(8a) This is basically an admission that our belief should be based on the gut rather than the intellect, and this gut-based belief becomes the basis of our salvation.  One might ask then, why God gave us the intellect to critically examine evidence in the first place.  Now, I know that Hinman would object to this line of reasoning, insisting that the real evidence is found within.  But nevertheless, our ability to feel that gut-level evidence is dependent on whether we can suppress the objective in favor of the subjective, and whether we think that the unscientific approach is really better than the scientific, despite our knowledge that a scientific approach actually works better.  It comes down to choosing what is emotionally satisfying rather than what is intellectually satisfying.  And this is supposedly what God wants.

In the end, it's not really about morality at all.  It's all about whether we believe in God.  And that belief should not be based on intellect and objective evidence, but gut feelings.  If we do believe, then we are more likely to be moral people, because we understand the consequences of not being obedient to God's will.  But that's not what's important, as we gather from Hinman's statement 7. What's important is the belief itself.

And this is why I find Hinman's soteriological drama bizarre.  It starts out from a perspective of God wanting moral people to abide with him, and then essentially abandons the value of that morality in exchange for "heart-felt" belief that ignores objective evidence.  It really does sound like a child's just-so story.  It sounds good to the uncritical listener who wants to feel an emotional satisfaction, but doesn't bother to look beneath the surface, to question the underlying assumptions, or the logic, or its agreement with what we know of reality.  But if you can believe in God based on a gut feeling, then this just-so story is as good as any Rudyard Kipling tale of How the Leopard Got His Spots.


  1. Basically Joe wants to follow Immanuel Kant in saying a person performs their obligation only if they act out of duty rather than strictly anything else. e.g. I perform my obligation to give to charity only if I give to charity for the sake of giving to charity rather than giving to charity to look good.

    So, Joe wants to say if we knew God exists, then people would be less likely to act out of duty because the probability of being acting out of self interest would go up. e.g. give to charity not because they are obligated to, but because they fear God punishing them.

    I think it fails for a few reasons, one of which is that there is tension between this argument and Joe's insistence that mystical experiences are both widely experienced and indicate God exists. If God really wants the universe to appear ambiguous, then it would be odd that God would make itself known to millions of people through mystical experiences. By Joe's own reasoning, if God not being hidden raises the probability that people fail to act out of duty, then if mystical experiences imply God is not hidden then mystical experiences raise the probability that people fail to act out of duty. It seems that Joe cannot consistently use the drama argument and his mystical experiences argument.

    Another reason the drama argument fails is that it doesn't directly refute a premise in arguments from evil. At best the drama argument makes a morally ambiguous universe a little more probable on theism than it otherwise would be, but it doesn't help make a morally ambiguous universe more probable given theism than non-theism. Granting the drama argument works, it would still be the case that all the various kinds of evil we see are more probable given non-theism than theism, so the drama argument barely helps.

    1. That's a helpful commentary. I still think the whole notion of a drama is totally at odds with the Christian concept of God, for whom there is no question about what the outcome will be. It's only a drama from our own perspective. And for too many, the ending is not a happy one.

    2. you missed the point Skep. You say:"These stories, known as "theodicies", are an attempt to explain away our observations of the world in the face of apparently contradictory assumptions about the qualities of God. Most of them try to make the case that it's all for our own good - that we need all these bad things in our lives in order to build or prove our character, so that we God can know we are worthy of spending eternity basking in his presence."

      those are the kinds of explanations I hate.My thing is specifically an attempt to avoid them.

      In a nut shell, God can't intervene all the time because it would negate the search for truth;we can't be handed truth we have to seek it because that's the only way to internalize the values of the good.

      that has nothing to do with suffering builds character or proving we are worthy. Ryan's analysis wasn't far off.

    3. Joe, the passage you cited was not about your theodicy in particular. It wasn't until after that remark that I began to address yours.

      The point I was making is that no matter what explanation the theodicy provides, it is always like reading a just-so story, and yours is no exception to that rule. The idea that we have to "search for truth" is something that makes no sense. Why should we have to search for truth? And why couldn't God just make us good and wise to begin with? That's something your just-so story doesn't explain an any satisfactory way. I'd lie to see answers to all those points I raised, and not some hand-waving well, it just has to be that way.