On God As The Source Of Being But Not Of Evil

On God As The Source Of Being But Not Of Evil July 9, 2010


This post is a long one but an important one for understanding what sophisticated Roman Catholic philosophers have traditionally meant when they have said that “God is good” and that the existence of evil is not to be taken as counter-evidence to their belief in God’s goodness.  Very often we atheists are dismissed as ignorant of serious theology and theistic metaphysics or as picking on theologically unsophisticated versions of Christianity because it’s simply an easier target than trying to refute the more profound religious philosophers.   In what follows, I will cut to the core of what traditional Roman Catholicism since Thomas Aquinas genuinely thinks is going on philosophically, and not merely metaphorically, when they talk about God’s goodness.  What follows is the basic outline of what God supposedly really is and my arguments as to why this philosophical interpretation of the concept fails to solve the problem of the evil in any meaningful way.  I have demarcated major section breaks to help you read it in parts if it is too long for you to read all in one sitting.  I could have made each of the parts into its own post but I wanted to present all the ideas together in a unified context which explained and critiqued interrelated ideas all together in a cohesive presentation.

In this post, I am going to criticize a general form of the historically common ” “evil as privation” arguments meant to absolve a supposed good God of responsibility for creating evil.  I am going to argue that the main flaw in “evil as privation” theodicy is that its potential persuasiveness hinges on our willingness to accept a patently misleading equivocation between unrelated senses of the word “good”.  And, worse, I will argue that the philosophers who endorse these arguments while also permitting average believers to understand God with the traditional metaphor that he is a loving father are guilty of a fundamentally misleading bait and switch.

Being As Intrinsically Good

All things, insofar as they are, have goodness.  This is because, for any existent thing whatsoever, to be is necessarily better than not being (regardless of whether a given existent thing consciously acknowledges this or is even capable of thinking about it at all).  This goodness is partly a function of the fact that every existent thing inherently depends upon its having being in order to have any other good things.

Existing is, in the first place, the most foundational good.  It is the good in which all other goods can even occur.  All actual good things are existent things and we can only enjoy them if they exist and if we exist.  Even our own personal excellences all require our own existences as their precondition and, furthermore, fulfilling our potential for an excellence essentially consists of existing in certain greater ways rather than in other lesser ways.   All that is either intrinsically excellent or delightful to others aboutany existent thing is also a function of its way of existing, the form its existence takes.

I borrow Plato and Aristotle’s term “form” only with the proviso that it needs always to be read in ways that are consistent with modern biology.  If you think it is impossible or unwise to retain form or essence language given the facts known by modern biology, leave your objection in the comments and I will happily explore my reasons for thinking they can be compatible and complementary ways of understanding the natural world and how philosophical recourse to this metaphysical language need not lead to any confusions about the proper biological nomenclature or be inconsistent with recognition of biological processes.

As my first preemptive defenses against foreseeable objections: I only see biological “forms” as the contingent results of natural selection, not as in any way immaterial essences given directly to beings by a divine agency.  By forms I also do not mean to imply that any non-biologically-based, distinguishable metaphysical, non-physical thing is at work in natural entities making them take the shapes they have.  The “forms” things have are purely functions of physical, chemical, and biological processes. There are also no strict formal constraints that prevent evolution by which one species splits into two.

By the term “form” in general, I only refer to recurrent, scientifically specifiable patterns of organization that make different entities classifiable as belonging to common groups, as essentially the same kinds of things.

In other words, I refer to the fact that, for whatever physical, chemical, or biological reasons are explanatory in any given case, there are patterns of being which occur the same in more than one entity, such that each of those entities can be rightly and accurately referred to as the same “kinds” or “forms” of things and expected as such to have either identical properties and behaviors or to have characteristically similar ones, which can be, or already are, scientifically specifiable.

Every ”form” is a way to exist and, therefore, if what I said at the beginning is correct, a possible way to be good.  Now a given being may or may not completely fulfill its formal possibility for existing excellently according to its kind. Every being, essentially, might more or less fully realize the potential which its nature gives it.  It may become a more or less excellent instance of its kind.  The more that a thing fulfills its potential, the more it actualizes its nature, and the more it becomes that thing.

For a simple example, all humans have some musicality which gives us each at leastsome potential to be musicians.  The more that one of us fulfills the excellences of music performance, the more one becomes an excellent musician.  In Aristotelian language (while not endorsing the superseded physics with which he interpreted the terms), to turn a potentiality into an actuality is to realize a form.

The more a thing does the characteristic things of its kind, the more it becomes in actuality, and not just potentially, a thing of that kind.  The more excellently you do those characteristic things which are fit for your kind of being, the more closely, ideally, and powerfully you embody its formal ideal.  And, in some significant sense, this makes you more that sort of thing.

In a certain real sense, the degree to which a musician plays according to ideals of perfect musicianship, the more she is a musician and the less adequately she approaches the ideal of perfect musicianship, the less she is a musician.  This intuition is captured when we praise a good musician by saying “she is quite a musician” or criticize a bad musician by saying, “she isn’t much of a musician”.

What we are saying in the latter example is that what she does functions less as musicianship the further it gets from being an instance of ideal musicianship and she herself is less of a musician to that extent.  And vice versa in the former case.

So, we fulfill a potential to do something not only by doing the formal motions involved in doing that thing but, more importantly, by doing that thing in ideal ways.  We actualize ourselves as musicians not just by plucking on strings or blowing into horns but by effectively expressing musical skills and by effectively creating instances of music which excellently do whatever music characteristically does.

And this does not go just for being a musician of course but it goes for being a whole human being.  The more we actualize our potentials the more we fully realize our human nature by more closely approaching an ideal of human perfection and existing more fully as human.

While we are all, of course, minimally human by virtue of belonging to the species and doing human activity to at least some minimums of characteristic human excellence, we can more fully realize our humanity and more fully exist as humans to the extent that we realize our characteristic excellences.  These excellences are our virtues, be they moral, intellectual, or technical.

In some real way, having only the crudest and most rudimentary musical abilities, as I do for example, and rarely expressing any of them, means I am less fully existing as a human being than, say, an alternate version of me who had all my own cultivated powers and expressions of them but also added to them the fulfillment of the ideal of musicality.

In this sort of picture we see how being can be equated with goodness. The extent that I do something excellent is the extent to which I am a certain kind of being and the extent to which I lack an excellence is the extent to which I am not a certain kind of being.

There are some excellences which I can never have because of constraints I get from being human.  I can only be excellent in terms of the powers germane to my kind of being and in terms of the possible complex recombinations of power permitted within the constraints of my kind of being. The degree to which I fail to excellently realize those powers is the extent to which I fail to ideally be my kind of being.

Just as when a heart fails to pump blood, it fails to realize the very functionality which biologically defines it as a heart and so fails any longer to, in effect, be a heart, we can say that:

When I fail to philosophize well, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not a philosopher.

When I fail to act morally well, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not a moral human being.

When I fail to be a moral human being, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not excellent according to central human powers.

When I fail to be excellent according to central human powers, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not an ideal human being.

When I fail to be an ideal human being, I am, functionally speaking, to that extent not a human being.

Of course, the qualifiers “functionally speaking” and “to that extent” are crucial to all of the above distinctions.  Fortunately, by our very nature, before we die we never failcompletely to fulfill our powers that make us human and until we die we can have the structures that, even when temporarily not functional, make for formal humanity.  Only once dead, when we completely stop functioning as human beings do and we lose all our human structures, do we completely stop being human.

Defining God, For Argument’s Sake, As “Whatever Explains Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing”

The next premise of the argument is that God is whatever that thing is which explains why there is something rather than nothing. Now, there are reasons for and against calling this principle “God”. The reasons for using the term is that the word “God” has a long legacy of being used this way in philosophy and that, as the idea of a being which is our source, it is consistent with even the layman’s notion of what a “God” would be.

The reason to be hesitant about calling whatever this thing that explains why there is something rather than nothing “God”, whether it is in some way an aspect of known realities or a distinct entity outside of known nature, is that the word “God” for most people also has very specific and immediate associations with the gods of religions and, more specifically in the West, the monotheistic personal, interventionist god of the Abrahamic faiths. Using the same word for the metaphysical principle that explains why there is something rather than nothing that people as a matter of first connotation associate with the god of Judaism, Christianity, and/or Islam, is to prejudice them to think that saying there must be a principle which explains why there is something rather than nothing also means saying there must be the god of the Abrahamic faiths (or at least of the god they are most familiar with or enculturated to believe in).

On the strictly metaphysical level, when we posit the reality (or aspect of reality) which explains why there is something rather than nothing, this principle could be anything from a single feature of the world to a feature of all its most basic components to a being somehow totally separate from the known universe which nonetheless causes it, etc. So, if we say that there must be something that causes known reality to exist we say there must be a “God”, according to one linguistically traditional definition, but we have no reason that I know of to think that that being is the same as any of the anthropomorphically imagined deities who have personalities and interact with humans and nature.

And if we restrict what we say we know about this entity, or class of entities, to what is strictly necessary to say about it or them in order to square how there is something rather than nothing, we really cannot say very much about it or them. We certainly cannot say, based only on the bare inference that there must be something that accounts for why there are things rather than no things, that this something or somethings must be personal or interested in humanity in a conscious way or that it has any interest whatsoever in people going to church or mosque or temple. We have no reason to think it hates gays or premarital sex or abortion or pork or war or working on Saturdays.

But digressing, for the sake of argument, let’s call this cause (or these causes) of all known being “God” or “gods”. And for simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it or them a singular “God” for the rest of this analysis. Let’s just posit that there is a unified source of all known reality. It may be a feature of reality itself or external to it. It makes no difference. Let’s say this being somehow is responsible for all the realities we know such that ultimately their very existence is traceable to its being as their source, regardless of how that works.  We’ll just call that being, whatever it is and however it operates to create beings, “God”.

Separating Philosophical Arguments About God’s Nature From Theological Ones

Now, thinking this way, we can understand what Thomas Aquinas was doing in his strictly philosophical attempts to solve the problem of evil and to found the source of morality. Aquinas was a brilliant philosopher who respected the difference between philosophy and theology by segregating much of his discussion of the two subjects. He made philosophical arguments that appealed only to general reason and evidence so that non-believers who did not accept the Bible or Christian tradition could be persuaded by argumentation and not forced to believe by faith what could not be proven by reason.  By contrast, in his theological arguments, he tried to reconcile his philosophical conclusions with Christian authorities, including the Bible of course, and there did unfortunately embrace dogmatic authoritarian sources on faith. But at least he did not pretend those were rationally derivable truths that did not require faith.

So, what does Aquinas conclude philosophically about God and goodness. We can ignore his theologically based views because they are rooted in assumptions that the Christian tradition and its traditional sources of authority are inherently true.  And there’s no good reason to assume that.  But can he persuade us with arguments made purely on philosophical grounds that at least the Christian myths refer to actual philosophical truths—even if we do not buy all the fantastic superstitious faith-based beliefs?  Might Christianity still be metaphorically true if not literally?

The Literal, Non-Metaphorical, Philosophical Implications Of The God-Concept

Aquinas argues that if God is the source of all contingent beings, it itself is not a limited finite being itself but a necessarily eternal and unlimited being. It has no definition as merely one temporary combination of matter and form within reality but must be pure being itself to be the source of all other being. Lacking no being, it can lack no goodness since to be is simply to be good. For God to be the “creator” simply means, in philosophical non-metaphorical terms, that the source of all being is the reason all observable realities have being at all.

God’s love of “humanity” is just a function of being’s love of being as intrinsically good.  Assuming Aquinas is right and God is personal (though I see no reason to think this could be true), God, as the fullness of being, would love being because it is intrinsically good.  God would love the intrinsic desirableness of our being itself.

God As Creator Of Morality By Being Creator Of The Human Form

God creates morality, on this conception, by being the source of forms. All beings take essential forms in that they are specific things. There’s no free floating “being” that is not taking some particular form which makes it a specific kind of actually existing being. If all beings come from the source of all being, ultimately all the forms which beings take are also traceable back to the necessary being who gives all things their existence.  As Aquinas has personalized God, he can interpret the forms that beings take as not merely issuing out of the source of all being in a blind and purposeless way but rather as being deliberately designed.  God, in a personal, intelligent, and deliberate way designates all the ideal natural possibilities in which beings can exist.

At this point, I would diverge, not thinking there is any reason to think that the ground of all being is itself personal or that it deliberately chooses the formal patterns that natural things take. Since many of these formal patterns emerge through the apparently contingent process of natural selection, they do not seem to go back to a designing personal God who bequeathed to the universe fixed forms from the start.  So, Aquinas is already losing me philosophically here despite might weakness for “form” language, my sympathies with his tendency to associate being and goodness, and my theoretical openness to a basic principle which accounts for why there is something rather than nothing.

But, for the sake of understanding the logic of the Thomist (and, therefore, of official Catholic philosophy), let’s grant that the personal God created the forms for living things on purpose and with purpose. Having a form gives a thing an essential nature to realize. One realizes one’s essential nature by functioning according to that form. So, for an uncontroversial example, if I hire a painter, I can set out the essence of the job of painting in terms of functions which the painter has to perform. If the painter performs them, in performing them the painter becomes an actual painter and not just someone with the title. If I hire a painter and he never paints anything, he never really is a painter as he never does what painters do—he never paints.

So, if God gives us a form as human beings, “He” gives us a set of characteristic functions. To the extent that we perform them excellently, we fulfill our humanity, to the extent that we poorly function or damage our own abilities to function according to our characteristic functions, we fail to fully actualize our humanity. I think there is a lot of truth in this conception of human good and so am sympathetic to Aquinas, who was an influence on me when I read him. Only I think that our formal possibilities and characteristic functions are not at all God given and I do not think they are strictly constrained by an abstract formal essence determined in advance.  Forms clearly evolve and are fluid.  Form is conceived much more accurately, I think, as a heuristic category than as a distinct “causal principle” functioning in nature.

I think that evolutionary theory makes clear that our formal powers, our characteristic possibilities for excellent functioning arose contingently and I think that we can recombine our powers and restructure our social order in order to maximize them in ways that involve not looking at the basic hardware bequeathed to us by natural selection but imagining and creating richer, new ways to become more powerful, more effective human beings. And I think that the connection between the source of all being (whether it comes from within reality or from outside of it) is remote in its effects that create the particular forms we see.  They emerge through natural interactions not straight from the “will” of the source of nature itself (whatever that is). Those forms do not reflect any conscious or direct will of that source of being, even though they somehow flow out from it as its ultimate actual consequences. These may be determined, necessary consequences and expressions of the nature of that source of all being as Spinoza thought or they may be the open ended chance results of that being.

Natural And Moral Evils As Ways To Lack Of Being, Ways To Fail To Realize Forms

But, for the sake of understanding the Thomist reply to evil, let’s hypothetically posit that our forms come from a personal God. Then the argument about evil goes like this. God is inherently a necessary, complete, and simple being. Evil is defined as the lack of being or the disorder of good being. By a “lack of being” we can mean the lack of complete fulfillment of a being’s formal essence. So, to the extent that I do not fully actualize my human essence, I suffer an evil because I lack some of the possible goodness my form made possible for me. When a tooth has a cavity, it is an incomplete tooth, missing some of the tooth “being”, so to speak, which would make it a complete tooth, i.e.. a fully actualizing tooth according to the “form of the tooth” (if we can speak of teeth having forms, at least for illustration purposes). Similarly, eyes’ characteristic function is, obviously, to see. When an eye is blind it suffers an evil for lacking its proper functionality according to its inherent form.

Evil is not only present when a thing’s part, required by its form, is missing but also when the parts that are there function in a disordered way. As Plato had realized, for example, it does not take specifically “evil” traits to make people behave badly. All that was necessary was that our good traits, such as our reason, our “spirited” part which was concerned with honor and willing to defend ourselves, and our appetitive desires (our desires for the pleasures of food, drink, sex, comfort, money etc.) get prioritized wrongly. The desire for sex is good, but it should not overwhelm your reason and lead you into unjust sexual acts or harmful ones, etc. Your desire to defend your honor is good, but it should not lead you to defend yourself when you are actually in the wrong and deserving of shame, etc.

So, we do not need an “evil” trait in order to do evil. Our inherently good traits, dispositions, and powers can all easily contribute to our living well. And they can all be badly used if we act on them at the wrong times, in the wrong places, in the wrong ways, according to the wrong priorities (and wrong balance between them), etc.

Now, there are two kinds of evil, natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil occurs wherever we suffer a deficiency that makes us unable to live a fully good life. Going blind, getting sick, naturally lacking skills with intelligence, having one’s house destroyed by a hurricane, getting killed, etc., are all natural evils. They involve no moral failure, but involve suffering evil, i.e., lacking good things important to our abilities to fully flourish in life.

Moral evils come from having our inherently good powers disordered such that we deliberately choose to follow our inclinations in ways that express poor moral judgment or either an excess or a deficiency an inclination that would be more excellently realized, according to its proper form, if expressed moderately.

God As Creator Only Of Beings (Which Are Good) But Not Of Non-Beings (Which Are Evil)

So, how do these helpful, illuminating, and essentially true distinctions about evil relate to the problem of evil? What do they have to do with the paradox of positing an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God despite the fact of evident suffering? The problem of evil, as you know, is the idea that since an omnipotent God could prevent evil if he so chose and an all-good or all-loving God would prevent evil if he could, the observable fact of evil in the world proves that God is either not omnipotent, not all-good or all-loving, or non-existent altogether.

The Thomistic solution to this paradox hinges on the sense in which God is good and the sense in which evil exists only as a negation. The sense in which God is said to be good, philosophically speaking, is strictly the sense in which God is the source of all being. Since being is inherently good and since the only thing we can infer with certainty about God is that it is necessary being, God is good and the source of all and only good things. “But,” you object, “God is the source of evil things if he created everything and some things are evil!”  But no, God is the source of actual beings and there are no intrinsically evil beings. There are only good beings which miss some of their possible goodness and so are not as good as they could be. But insofar as they are at all, i.e., to the extent that they have being, as such they are good.

God is the source of good beings, like us, with good traits and powers and dispositions, and all that God, as the source of being, can be said to give us is those traits and powers and dispositions. When I let my desire for honor override my rational understanding of justice and get into a fight for immoral reasons, that’s evil. And it happens without God “creating” any evil “thing”. It happens because I use the good things given to me by God, which are all in themselves good, in a way that is harmful to both my flourishing (and/or others’) and an obstacle to my (and/or their) fulfillment of the natural, formal ideal God laid out for me (and/or them).

So, God, on this conception, is just the giver of being. Wherever there is a lack of being it is not because God made a “lack” since a lack is not some thing that can be made. Wherever there is a disorder of being it is not because the being which God gave is inherently disordered. “When you ask, but if God is all good and all loving why would He create beings which were deficient? Why would he give someone all the human properties except eyesight? Or why would He give human beings all these good traits but then make it so easy and natural for us to be so demonstrably bad at managing them the best way possible?” And this is where the philosophical Thomistic defense of God gets callous.

The argument is that God, as the free giver of being is under no compulsion to create any particular kind of being. It is nonsensical to say, “Why didn’t God create a two-headed elephant!” Why would God have to? God is no less good, in the sense of a being with no lack of being in Him, if He opts not to create every possible good being. God’s being good is simply a function of God’s being pure, necessary being that lacks nothing by way of being. God is good whether or not He opts to create a world, whether He opts to create a world of billions of species or of just 5, and whether or not he opts to give you eyesight or whether or not he gives you an instinctual harmony between all your dispositions and powers that automatically leads to your flourishing.

The Metaphorical Bait And Philosophical Switch

But that, in my view, makes God callous and indifferent and that’s not moral.  So God is not, morally speaking, good.  And the response from the Thomist is that morality does not apply to God. Morality is a human thing. It is a human way of living up to the human form. We have to fulfill our essences to be fully what we are and morality is a way of living well according to practical decisions with respect to action. God, though, is not a finite being and has no form, but is just pure, simple being. He has no moral obligations. He just creates or does not create at arbitrary whim. Morality is binding on us because He gave us a nature which requires adherence to morality in order to completely fulfill itself. But morality is not a cosmic law that even God must obey.

Therefore, when stripped of all the misleading metaphors about God being “loving” and “morally good” and a “father”, the real, non-metaphorical understanding of God in Thomistic, i.e., official Roman Catholic philosophy, is that God’s goodness is only His “fullness of being” and has nothing whatsoever to do with the respect and care for people or for moral principles which we think of as the praiseworthy and morally lovable kind of goodness.  God’s only concern for our morality is as its designer, not as one subject to it.  God is as unconstrained in action by the morality he made necessary for us as, say, a computer programmer is unconstrained by the program she makes vital for her programs to perform their functions.  Her own actions away from the computer are not run by the program she writes and she does not have to make any particular program do any particular thing she is not inclined to make it do.

Saying God is a “father” non-metaphorically just means “God is the source of your being”, analogous to the way your father is, but it does not mean that He will go out of His way to do anything for you whatsoever to make sure you prosper, as a paradigmatic actual loving father would. This source of being “father” we have might just not bother to give you all the healthily working body parts or all the mental powers or all the necessary material resources to even minimally, let alone maximally, flourish according to the nature He gave you.

So, this is philosophically, in sophisticated, abstract terms, what educated Catholics understand all the Christian mythology to literally mean. All the metaphors which invite people to feel an interpersonal bond with God rely on a fundamental bait and switch, as I see it. What lay person would feel tempted to feel any special affection for an indifferent source of all being which generates us with no necessary concern to make sure that we have all the physical, mental, emotional, and material resources necessary to flourish? What lay person would feel satisfied with the cold, barren abstraction that God is all good because He lacks no being but not all good in the sense of giving a single damn about preventing you from being raped or your kid from dying of leukemia or your billions of fellow humans from starving everyday.

Philosophically, this route to washing God’s hands of responsibility for evil, strips God of all that moral goodness which alone could make a personal being lovable to other moral beings and upon which alone people hope when they pray and worship God.

Casting My Atheism In Catholic Philosophy’s Terms

Philosophically speaking, we had might as well just interpret this source of all being atheistically as an ultimately indifferent and accidental benefactor to us which had no conscious intentions to create us.  We can posit that it just emanated all reality into being as an expression of its eternal essence.  Or conceive that it is reality itself, taken under one of its aspects, which expresses itself in all the observable modes of being (including ourselves) as we experience them. In either case, its creation of us is a remote effect of its essential nature and it is less than indifferent to whether we exist or thrive (not even having any feelings, not even indifference).  Insofar as the laws of its nature ultimately led to the laws of our natures, and to the naturally valuable moral precepts upon which we rely, it is a source of morality but it is only so in that remote way that leaves moral understanding open-ended as we learn more.

We can feel a sense of wondrous gratitude for the source of all being, whatever it might be, in that it is the precondition of our existing and existing for us is truly an intrinsic good and, therefore, one which only rightly should cause us incredible delight. But we would not be directing that gratitude to any being that cared in the least to make us come about, but towards one which just happened to do so by its own blind, indifferent processes.  We should feel towards it however we should feel about gravity or electromagnetism or the sun or any other impersonal dynamic which constitutes an irreplaceable condition of our existence.

And we can certainly judge that the same processes emanating from the source of all being could just as indifferently destroy us as they created us.  Ironically, this sober, realistic, naturalistic, functionally teleological, existentialistic, atheistic picture of the world and our place in it is essentially consonant with the philosophically Thomistic picture of the world—just as long as one removes the anthropomorphic imputation of personhood to an abstract metaphysical postulate and the propagandistic myths designed to look at the fundamental reality which makes things exist at all as though it (a) were itself morally good, (b) loved us in any literally meaningful sense, (c) gave special revelations about its will to people in the Bible, (d) mysteriously became a human being and was murdered as part of a ritual sacrifice, and (e) demanded complete submission of mind and body to the authority of the Vatican.

But for all that stuff, I had might as well be a Catholic.

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