The Riddle of Epicurus

I stumbled across this one today and really liked the way it is phrased. It seems reasonable to me. I was getting at this point (trying anyway) with a recent thread I started about morality existing outside of god. Anyone see any flaws with the line of thining here? If so, where?

Some links to help get familiar with both sides:

DaLovin’ Dj

This is the all-too-familiar “problem of evil,” much discussed here.
The standard apologia is “God works in mysterious ways…”

“God works in mysterious ways…”

Fair enough, but if those myserious ways include evil and he is omnipotent then he must be malevolent. The mysterious ways argument doesn’t seem like a counter-argument at all.

A highly imperfect analogy:

A father allows his child to pour himself a glass of milk. The child can’t handle it, and ends up pouring milk all over the table and the floor.

Now, did this HAVE to happen? Of course not. The father could have poured the milk FOR the child, and the whole mess need never have happened. So, was the father malevolent? Was it his “will” that the child spill his milk? No! It was the father’s will that the child pour the milk into the glass without spilling a drop. But the father allowed the child to try something he knew that child might not be able to do. Epicurus could argue, then, that the father “allowed” this accident to happen. But would that make him a cruel sadist? Hardly.

When you give a child a chance to act on his own, there’s always a risk he’ll fail, and that the result will be disaster. But you HAVE to give that child a chance, or he’ll never learn and he’ll never grow. The alternative is to raise a helpless, dependent child with no freedom and no mind or will of his own.

End of analogy. Back to the problem of suffering. MOST human suffering is caused by humans. Most of my own suffering in life has been my own fault, the direct result of my own choices. Most of the rest of it has been the fault of other people, the direct result of others’ actions.

In these situations, to ask “Why didn’t God prevent this” is really to ask “Why did God give us free will?” Free will comes with a price, and it can be a terrible price. I can hurt myself. I can kill myself. And worse yet, I can hurt or kill others. If I elect to get drunk and drive fast, I might kill some innocent bystander. And God is not going to save me (or the bystander) from the consequences of my immoral actions.

So… in that hypothetical case, is it “God’s will” that I get drunk and kill someone? No- but God isn’t going to use magic to force me to be good.

I think, rather, that the father would just be defined as “not omnipotent.” He could not know for sure whether the kid could handle the milk, so he would not classify as an ominpotent/omnicient god, even if that’s how his kids think of him. He could still be a good Dad though.

DaLovin’ Dj

This is a false dilemma. There are many other possibilities. One for instance is: If God does not exist then s/he has no will and thus no say in the matter.

I don’t really get why God has to be omnipotent. Just because he has the power to create man and bring us to heaven or send us to Hell, does that have to mean he has the power to do anything?

I wish I knew the actual source of that thing. I’ve seen it a couple of times — a sort of Dr. Seuss meets Mother Goose, except it doesn’t rhyme. It doesn’t come from Epicurus. What we have that survives from him are the following:

The Sovran Maxims
The Vatican Sayings
Letter to Menoeceus
Letter to Herodotus
Letter to Pythocles
Letter to Idomeneus
and his Last Will

None of his writings mention any such “riddle”, so the thing is probably a fraud, or a rip-off of something carved into a college dorm bathroom stall.

In fact, the famous hedonist was not an atheist. He wrote in his letter to Menoeceus:

With that out of the way:

The riddle betrays a naive understanding of what evil is. It is not some force aligned against God. All spiritual beings (meaning God and all of us) are free moral agents. Evil is merely the absence of goodness, just as darkness is merely the absence of light. There are no darkness waves that propogate where there is no light. And there is no evil agent that propogates where there is no goodness. Whatever is evil merely ceases to exist.

When free moral agents reject goodness, evil is the result. God values goodness above any other aesthetic. If we all did the same, there would be no evil.

Omniscience introduces another puzzle though; if the father had known for sure that the milk would be spilt, intervening to stop it would prevent it happening and nullify the perfect foreknowledge of the event.

I prefer “we don’t know all of the variables or the scope of the plan” to the ‘mysterious ways’ thing, although it amounts to a very similar hill of very similar beans.

Lib, if I drop something heavy above your head, then I did not kill you: gravity did. Right? Or might I bear some moral responsibility for putting the weight above your head in such a way that physics would act on it? And that would go double if I actually created and maintained the gravity that would knock your noggin, and quadrouple if I had perfect knowledge of what would happen when the weight hit your head?

If I dig a hole, and someone falls into it, I may be at fault. If I don’t help the person out of the hole, then I am a bollock regardless of whether or not I had the right to dig the hole in the first place.

Re: no darkness waves: If I wanted to be pedantic, I could talk about antiphotons, but that is not Prussian to the conversation.

Antiphotons and photons are the same particle, just like the other force carriers.

If you allow me to reject goodness, then unless I am your android, you are not yourself rejecting goodness. You may value goodness while allowing me the freedom to decide what I value.

Alright, then. What cause is there for God to cause us to suffer by not telling us why we suffer?
Re: God as parent:

“But I value human life, Officer Calvin. It’s not my fault that gravity doesn’t!”

Let’s forget about human-on-human interactions for the moment. Bad stuff happens that no one is responsible for. Why does it happen? Does God care about AIDS, wars, et al? If so, why don’t he do sumthin? And if not, then what was with the whole Jesus healing the sick and smiting of Sodom and Gommorah?

Not at all; the knowledge could be of the conditional sort:

“If I intervene, the milk will not be spilt. If I don’t intervene, the milk will be spilt.” This works to dispel the fallacy that if God is omniscient, then he cannot have free will. He can know what will be the precise result of every action he takes, and thus exercise his free will in order to bring about the desired effect.

It could be argued that we, in this life, are not mature enough to understand the explanation. If you see a baby about to perform an action that you know will result in the baby falling on his rump and suffering some minor discomfort, you may allow it, so that the baby will learn not to perform the action again. Would you bother trying to explain your reasoning to the baby, knowing that it wouldn’t understand a word of what you’re trying to say?

Perhaps this life is just a stage, and when we pass to the next stage, we’ll be in a position to understand God’s logic.

I do not accept your premise that God causes suffering. I likely don’t even agree with you about what suffering is.

ElJeffe wrote:

That’s exactly how I see it. The universe is just a mis-en-scene.

So, if our suffering is insignificant, why did God intervene to change the world before? Hell, why is the world in the first place? If me whacking you over the head with an ax doesn’t matter to God, why should me giving you a hug matter?

God, I believe, places a higher value on the choice of freedom than automaton “goodness.”

Erm, if you’re referring to the Christian God, that would be a negatory. Remember the whole tree of knowledge bit? God didn’t want us to be able to choose to sin. (Which asks the question of why He put the tree there in the first place.)

If a man told me that he and I might have two different understandings of what suffering is, I would be ashamed then to ask of him why he believed suffering to be “insignificant”, as though his difference with me must be nefarious in its conception since I alone hold the proper view. I hope that I would suppress my inclination to pelt him with such questions as whether he has stopped beating his wife, and whether he supports the tyrannical U.S. government. Just yes or no, please.

Likewise, if a man had explained to everyone in the community forty ways from Sunday, and as many times besides, that while the atoms are amoral, the spirit is not, I would do whatever is necessary to restrain my primal propensity — born, apparently, of an irresistible urge to ridicule him for his heretical views — to run out onto the street, frothing at the mouth, and growling at him about whether this manifestion of the atoms is morally superior to that one.

If a man had said before — once, twice, and even a hundred times — that a moral enactment is not the movement of atoms through time and space, but the movement of goodness through the conduit of love, then I would be embarrassed to display in front of everyone that I cannot discern whether in general goodness is better facilitated by chopping heads off with axes or by hugging people.

If I could not understand that an amoral mis-en-scene might provide a context for making moral decisions, I would just keep my mouth shut. Or failing that, rather than ask monumentally bizarre questions, I would put forward a theory of my own. Of course, if I did that, I would have to defend it. But then crouching in the shadows and throwing rocks at passers-by is not my preferred style.