Catholic philosopher (and former atheist) Edward Feser might be many things, but he certainly isn’t dull. Nor is he afraid of grappling with the big questions. In the latest issue of First Things, he discusses the problem of evil in a wide-ranging interview with Connor Grubaugh, where he talks about his three favorite books in the field of contemporary analytic philosophy. Feser (who is Associate Professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College) is a Thomist, for whom the claim that the existence of evil and suffering constitutes evidence against God’s existence reflects a faulty conception of the relationship between creature and Creator. God is not just a Being who interacts with us on a personal level; rather, He is the very Author of our existence. And just as an author (such as J. K. Rowling) has no obligations to the characters in her stories, so too, God has no obligations towards us. Consequently there can be no question of Him ever doing us an injustice.
In today’s essay, I’d like to explain why I think Professor Feser’s solution is unsatisfactory, and why I think the problem of evil is much more serious than Feser supposes. I won’t be proposing my own solution, however. All I can do is briefly outline how I believe the problem can be defused, and why I don’t think it’s fatal for theism.
Back to Feser’s interview. Feser begins by nominating Brian Davies’s The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil as one of his favorite books on analytical philosophy, from a Thomistic perspective. He explains why:
This is the best book in print on the problem of evil. It develops two key Thomistic insights: First, you cannot properly understand the problem of evil without understanding the nature of God’s causal relationship to the world. Second, you cannot properly understand the problem of evil if you conceive of God in anthropomorphic terms—as something like a human agent, only bigger and stronger. If the world is like a story, God is not a character in the story alongside other characters; he is like the author of the story. And just as it makes no sense to think of an author as being unjust to his characters, neither does it make sense to think of God as being unjust to his creatures. While God is perfectly good, it is a deep mistake to think that this entails that he is a kind of cosmic Boy Scout, and that the problem of evil is a question about whether he deserves all his merit badges. Davies also shows how, from a Thomistic point of view, the approach to the problem of evil taken by contemporary philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga and Richard Swinburne is misguided and presupposes too anthropomorphic a conception of God…
…[T]oo many people think of God’s goodness as if it were a kind of super-virtuousness. As Davies likes to put it, they think of it as if it were a matter of God’s being unusually “well-behaved.” It’s as if they look at God as a heroic character in the novel, whereas the atheist who is troubled by the suffering in the world looks at God as a villainous character who behaves badly. But God is not a character in the novel in the first place.
There are several problems with this statement. First of all, for a Christian, Professor Feser’s assertion that God is not a character in the novel is contradicted by the fact of the Incarnation, when God became man and lived among us. Feser would surely acknowledge this, and I imagine his response would be that in mounting the above defense of God’s goodness in a world marred by evil, he is merely defending classical theism (belief in a simple, transcendent, timeless, infinite Creator), rather than the more specific claims of Christianity. Feser might add that evil – both natural and moral – predates the Incarnation, and that even after the Fall, God did not have to choose to live among us. Classical theists maintain that even in a world without Christ, belief in God would still be rational. We therefore need to look for a more general solution to the problem of evil than the Incarnation.
The second problem with Feser’s “author-character” analogy is that he himself has exposed its fatal flaw. Several years ago, he wrote a post in response to a tentative suggestion of mine that maybe we are all characters in a story written by God – not an ordinary story, but an interactive one, which allows us to interact with our Author, rather like the Tamagotchi electronic pets of the 1990s, which asked their owner to feed them and “died” if their owner neglected them. Thus although we exist within God’s storybook, we possess genuine (God-given) libertarian agency: we actually write some of the story ourselves.
In response, Feser argued that while God’s causality is basically like that of the author of the story who decides that the characters will interact in such-and-such a way (rather than that of a mere character in the story), nevertheless “the world is not literally a mere story and we are not literally fictional characters.” For one thing, argued Feser, “there is an obvious difference between us and fictional characters: we exist and they don’t.” What’s more, “the characters in a story do not literally ‘interact’ with the author … for the simple reason that they do not exist and thus cannot interact with anything.” Finally, “because the characters do not exist but are purely fictional, they are not true causes the way real things are. Everything they seem to do is really done by their author.” What this means is that if the storybook analogy were literally true, none of us really act at all: rather, it is God Who really performs our actions. The storybook analogy is bad theology, too: “If we and everything else in the universe are, in effect, mere ideas in the mind of a divine Author, then the distinction between God and the world collapses.”
For Feser, as a Thomist, the reason why fictional characters cannot be said to exist is that God has not bestowed their essences with the fire of existence, which would endow them with objective reality, making them participants in God’s Unlimited Being. Phoenixes have fully-fledged essences; what they lack is existence, since God has not bothered to create them. (For my own part, I find the Scholastic essence-existence distinction philosophically muddled, and I explain the non-existence of phoenixes by virtue of the fact that no matter in our universe currently happens to realize the form of a living phoenix – a form which, incidentally, is inadequately defined, as the bird’s anatomy and biological processes are nowhere specified in its definition. But I digress.)
The key point, however, is that despite Feser’s insistence that “we are not literally fictional characters,” Feser’s storybook analogy is fundamental to his account of why God is not culpable for allowing evil to exist: as he puts it in his interview with First Things, “just as it makes no sense to think of an author as being unjust to his characters, neither does it make sense to think of God as being unjust to his creatures.” Unfortunately, Feser never tells us why it doesn’t make sense to speak of an author as being unjust to his characters. One obvious answer to this question is: “because the characters are fictional, not real.” But if that’s the answer, then an atheist could retort that since human beings, unlike Voldemort and Draco Malfoy, are real, it is possible after all for God to act unjustly towards His human creatures. Only human authors have no obligations towards their characters, because they are not real.
Another possible answer to the question of why an author can never act unjustly towards his characters is simply that they depend entirely on the author for their being (with a small “b.”) But the premise, “B depends entirely on A” in no way implies the conclusion, “A has no obligations towards B.” All that follows is that A has no enforceable obligations towards B – at least, none that B can enforce. But an unenforceable obligation is still an obligation. Additionally, there seems to be nothing preventing A from voluntarily assuming obligations towards B, in the very act of creating B. (For instance, A might promise to protect B from other characters that might harm him.) In that case, if A fails to meet those responsibilities then he could be said to have failed in His duty towards B, and to have committed an injustice towards B, by breaking his promise to B.
I can think of no other reason why Feser would maintain that an author can never act unjustly towards his characters. That being the case, it is by no means evident that God’s being the Creator of the universe geets Him off the hook, morally speaking, as far as culpability for natural and moral evil is concerned.
I might also add that if it makes no sense to speak of an author being unjust to his characters, as Professor Feser contends, then by the same token, it makes no sense to speak of his being just in His dealings with them. Yet Feser, as a devout Catholic, believes that God is perfectly just, that He rewards the virtuous in the hereafter and that He punishes evildoers in Hell. This doesn’t fit the storybook analogy: J. K. Rowling, for instance, may have written her book with a happy ending for Harry Potter and a not-so-happy ending for the characters who attempted to harm him, but it would be absurd to speak of her as “punishing” Voldemort, or for that matter, Draco Malfoy. Authors don’t punish their characters; nor do they reward them.
Another obvious flaw in the storybook analogy for God’s relationship to us is that when an author writes a book, the interaction is all one-way: from author to book. The characters have no say as to how they will end up in the story. Humans, on the other hand, can interact with their Creator, in prayer. (That was why I preferred the Tamagotchi analogy to the storybook analogy, as the characters can ask their owner to feed them.) What’s more, the choices humans make in this life will (according to many theists) affect their fate in the hereafter. Unlike the characters in a novel, we do have a say in our future destiny.
However, the biggest flaw in Professor Feser’s storybook analogy is that it fails to account for the fact that humans can defy the will of their Maker, by sinning. Now, Aquinas writes that God “in no way wills the evil of sin, which is the privation of right order towards the divine good” (Summa Theologica I, q. 19, a. 9) – a statement to which Feser would surely assent. However, this vitiates the analogy between God and the author of a storybook, as an individual named Thomas points out in a comment on Feser’s latest article in First Things:
The author metaphor is a poor one for the relation between God, and particularly ill-suited for the problem of evil…
God can cause the free choices of a human being without determining that choice to this or that; authors cannot. Authors are equally the cause of a character’s good deeds and misdeeds, and a novel’s characters cannot be said to defy the will of the novelist. Human beings, on the other hand, can defy the will of God…
If the author metaphor is useful at all in the context of the context of the problem of evil, it is only by contrasting God with a novelist.
Feser apparently overlooks the significance of this point. He writes that God’s being the ultimate source of all causality “is no more incompatible with human freedom than the fact that an author decides that, as part of a mystery story, a character will freely choose to commit a murder, is incompatible with the claim that the character in question really committed the murder freely.” But all that this line of argument (if it is successful) demonstrates is that the doctrine of predestination is compatible with a kind of freedom. It does not address the question of how the characters in a story can legitimately be said to defy the will of their author – and in particular, how humans can be said to defy the Will of their Maker.
I conclude that only if the human story is not pre-determined by God, but genuinely open, can humans be said to defy the will of their Maker.
So far, I have been concerned merely to argue that Professor Feser’s contention that God, as the Author of the cosmos, is not morally culpable for allowing evil, rests on a faulty analogy. However, the fact that the analogy is defective does not imply that God is morally culpable for not preventing evil. The onus is still on the atheist to explain exactly why a Transcendent Being would have such an obligation towards His sentient and/or sapient creatures.
Atheists commonly argue that if God were anything like a human parent, He would protect us from irreparable harm, regardless of whether it resulted from death, permanent injury or trauma. God would also protect us from evils (including horrific experiences) which are in no way good for us. And since God is supposed to be all-loving, all-wise and all-powerful, there is no reason why He could not accomplish all of these things right now.
In reply, a theist could point out that while God is indeed said to be more loving than any human parent, His obligations towards us are not those of a human parent. “Why not?” you may ask. The answer is that parental obligations are purely natural, arising from the fact that parents are human animals who have procreated a child, and that procreation is a basic human good which fulfills our human potential, and which may be legitimately pursued as an end in itself. While God may indeed have obligations towards His creatures, they are not natural obligations, because God’s voluntary decision to create does not spring from His nature; nor is it necessary, in order to complete or fulfill His nature. God would still be God, even if He had never chosen to make this world. He requires nothing outside Him, in order to realize His full potential.
It follows from the above reasoning that the atheistic argument that God must (if He is all-wise and all-powerful) be less loving than a human parent, because He fails to protect His creatures in ways that a human parent would normally be obliged to do, is invalid. God does not have natural parental obligations.
I argued above that God could still assume voluntary obligations towards us, in His decision to create us. Nevertheless, the precise content of those obligations, and the circumstances under which they would come into effect, remain unclear, as God has not publicly revealed them to us, so far. We are therefore not entitled to conclude from God’s silence that He is indifferent to our suffering. All we can say is that apparently, He doesn’t want to end it now.
However, there is nothing to prevent God, if He so wishes, from assuming voluntary parental obligations towards His creatures at some future date (via some Grand Restoration of the cosmos), or on an individual basis, preserving each sentient and/or sapient creature from annihilation, in some hereafter of which we have as yet no conception. If God chose either (or both) of these options, then He could fittingly be called all-loving. However, if God chose neither of these options, then such an ascription would seem pointless, as it would have no factual basis. The most we could say then would be that God is self-loving, like Aristotle’s God.
Loving or not, it cannot be denied that God is providential, in His dealings with the human race as a whole. Even in subsistence societies, life is precarious but generally not hellish: for instance, the Piraha people of the Amazon live very simply, but manage to stay extraordinarily happy: they live in the present, and do not dwell on the past or future. And the fact that we now live in a world in which the average human being will live to the age of 70, get a decent education, earn a living, fall in love, marry, procreate, and enjoy decades of good health before dying, should make us reflect. Science and free-market economics have improved our lot, but the amazing thing is that we live in a world in which so many scientific discoveries are possible, and in which knowledge can be shared rapidly. We have Providence to thank for that. Even our ability to make and use fire rests on a dazzling array of features built into the human body and the planet. Bad as things are at times, they could be much, much worse. The mere fact that any of us are able to enjoy anything at all should be a cause of wonder.
I trouble not myself about the manner of future existence. I content myself with believing, even to positive conviction, that the Power that gave me existence is able to continue it, in any form and manner he pleases, either with or without this body; and it appears more probable to me that I shall continue to exist hereafter, than that I should have had existence, as I now have, before that existence began.
Any one thing in the creation is sufficient to demonstrate a Providence, to a humble and grateful mind. Not to instance great things, the mere possibility of producing milk from grass, cheese from milk, and wool from skins – who formed and planned this? No one, say you. O surprising irreverence and dullness! (Book I, 16)
I’d like to wish my American readers a happy Independence Day.