Just came back from a talk by Hin-Tai Ting from one of the brave few philosophy students who chose to write a thesis in place of a finals paper, 15 000 words on the problem of evil. Firstly the problem is analysed down to whether or not there exists a moral evil which god has no morally sufficient reason to allow; if there is no such evil, then the famous impossible triangle of infinite love, infinite power and infinite knowledge dissipates. To do this Ting draws upon Christian doctrine, looking at Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans; he explained that this isn’t something that’s been done before (I presume the analysis above is standard in philosophy of religion?). The impossible triangle is all about an inconsistency. If this inconsistency is not real then the problem of evil is no longer an argument against (Christian) theism, when the argument is taken to be saying that said theism is inconsistent in some way and we should never accept an inconsistent theory.

The philosophical interest for me is in this overall process. Using a thought experiment about an explorer and a series of notebooks, and a second version of this modified to help the argument along, imaginative fantasies very much in keeping contemporary philosophical style, we discussed whether this methodology was legitimate. The worry is that in invoking Christian doctrine to respond to the problem of evil, we are assuming just what we are trying to prove since the problem of evil says that all this doctrine is false. On the face of it it doesn’t seem to actually be a problem. By looking at things in terms of consistency as I described above, everyone in the room was of the opinion that the methodology was sound, including myself, but I wanted to investigate further because the second thought experiment had me worried.

But the thing was, no-one else wanted to pursue this. It was seen as a side-issue. For me, it was one of the most important issues present. This was not because I had any secret desire to derail the argument, defeat it in the name of atheism or something, but because this sort of thing is fundamental to thought: when is an argument circular? It is of course very possible that in this case there was no circularity in a perfectly obvious way, that I am missing, and that I shouldn’t be worrying about. If everyone else in the room saw this, this would explain why they had no interest in pursuing it.

The issue that was important for everyone else was the problem of evil itself. Ting expressed that for him this was a fundamental question about his human experience; most people seemed to agree: they ask “why do people suffer?” in the way that I ask “what do I know?”.[1] It is utterly unimportant to me, I realised this evening, and this contrast shocked me. This is very far from the claim that I don’t care about suffering going on: I avowedly do, but at no point do I ask why. There’s suffering, it’s there, fine. Now, given this fact about the world and my human perspective on it and given a massive list of other simple conclusions we can write down, such as “it’s possible to come up with an argument against anything, and some of them are even decent”, what ought we to believe, and how ought we to spend our lives with this limited set of beliefs that we can actually attest to? This is the question that never abates in my mind, the Socratic enquiry after virtue in the classical sense of virtue.

As can happen with undergraduates the discussion moved on to various attacks on Christianity, but these were very much related to the specific doctrines that came up in defence of Ting’s thesis. Someone explained their view, a common one I suppose, that they could never believe in the Christian god because he’s a c***, she said, because he’s a god who has chosen certain people to become believers and go to heaven, when everyone else will go to hell. My sister says that she would never believe in a god who allows so much suffering to happen (I appreciate these views are distinct!). My atheism has always just been that I’ve never been offered any reason to think in terms of a existant deity. This is really rather different. Both the girl tonight and my sister have a real emotional connection with the issue of religion; for me, no such connection exists. My only real target is Socrates’, that is, those who are ignorant of their ignorance; this is why I seem to be directing myself towards scientism more than anything else at the moment (need to get those thoughts written out).

A few other differences with others came up worth noting. I think some of this is absorbed from my family: I can definitely see these values flowing from my mother and grandparents’ versions of Christianity. Someone said, if I killed your mother Sean, would you go out for coffee with me? I said, yes I would, and would think less of myself if I wouldn’t, and was called mad. This came up from a discussion of god’s love for humans. Ting described the example of someone who badly mistreated someone else, but was forgiven—god must feel anger towards the person who mistreated because of how much he loves the mistreated. To me, this is an inferior form of love. There is a serious inconsistency here though. The general thought from me seems to be to love all, and to be loving, but then this needs squaring with the thought that relationships with other individuals such as friendship and otherwise, which I value, require a certain exclusivity. This latter kind of love seems to be quite different to the former; perhaps the former ought to be called ‘respect’ or something but I’m not sure that’s strong enough.

A second aside: I had not realised at all that modern thinking Christians held the belief that people will actually go to hell for not being Christians. I was generally under the impression that repent, repent was old-fashioned, and the view was that god loves everyone, everyone will be cared for after death, there’s no actual punishment. This seems to line up with my intuitions about love described in the previous paragraph, taken from my family. I learnt last week what a Calvinist was, and was taken aback that the friend who told me about it, a fellow Balliol philosopher, was a Calvinist.

So this evening it was brought home to me how much contrast there is between the fundamental questions I see as important and those that others do. I find myself drifting in the direction of a kind of relativism about what is worth investigating, for on my extremely optimistic view of the blade of analysis,[2] on this battlefield the entirety of philosophy and mathematics are competing alongside the questions I have talked about in this post. How very Platonic.

We might cache this sense of relativism out by doing what philosophers like to do and try to put things into all-encompassing categories here: we can identify the choice of fundamental questions with choice of creed. I’m an adherent to The Last Days of Socrates just as Ting follows the teachings in the Bible. The usual argument against religious relativism is, well, my religion is true: I’m Christian because I think it’s actually the case. I think that in the case of my creed, if it is one, a move like this isn’t really possible because the central doctrine is completely negative. My usual argument here is that this brand of philosophy is the best choice because it is capable of being replaced if mistaken in a way that nothing else is. This doesn’t tend to convince anyone but me though.

[1] I appreciate that this comparison is only useful at this point in my discussion if you know me well.

[2] I recently used this phrase and got the counter, what about the warhammer of dialectic? Appropriate imagery for those who wish to identify continental philosophy with obscurantism.