Narrative, Judicial Analogy, & The Problem of Evil
The problem of evil comes first as a problem in life and only derivatively a problem in philosophy. But does the philosophical problem of evil address the practical problem of evil once philosophy has closed her doors? A good number of years ago George Mavrodes (1968) was inclined to say “no.” In what he called his prolegomena to the problem of evil, Mavrodes argued that the high level of abstraction in philosophical discussion had left the practical problem outside. Mavrodes therefore thought it necessary to go back to the drawing board and ask a fundamental question: “What sort of problem is the problem supposed to be?” Mavrodes concluded that the problem of evil was a problem of experience, rooted in life:
The treatment of the problem of evil which is represented in Job, or in a pastor’s statements to an ordinary parishioner after the death of his child, remains close to the living roots of the problem in the life and experience of the persons involved. This concreteness imposes parameters upon the terms in which the problem and its solution are discussed, without the necessity of their explicit formulation. The difficulty which is to be overcome, and not merely some statement about it, is present vividly to those who speak, and it reminds them of what their speaking must attempt to do.
This is the real problem of evil; the philosophical difficulty in dealing with this problem is that “these natural parameters fade out in the dispassionate and abstract treatment of the problem in a philosophical mode.” Up until the time that Mavrodes published this essay philosophy had traditionally dealt with a set of propositions and the logical relations between those propositions: 1) God is Good 2) God is all powerful 3) God is all knowing 4) Evil exists; the quest was to demonstrate whether or not a logical contradiction arose between these four propositions and any other additional propositions that might need to be added to the set. But according to Mavrodes what this meant was that the problem “was either non-existent or insoluble, and that therefore no solution was called for,” a result that seemed to justify the opinion that “philosophy deals largely with pseudo-problems having no real reference to life at any level.” It is not clear, for example, how traditional discussions about the logical relations within a timeless and impersonal proposition set have the ability to solve the problem individuals have with a good and perfect God either causing or willfully allowing the following instance of evil:
A young Muslim mother in Bosnia was repeatedly raped in front of her husband and father, with her baby screaming on the floor beside her. When her tormentors seemed finally tired of her, she begged permission to nurse the child. In response, one of the rapists swiftly decapitated the baby and threw the head in the mother’s lap.
In response to all this Mavrodes’ proposed an additional task for the philosopher; the philosophical problem of evil must keep in view the criterion of “psychological effectiveness.” This proposal is really not much more than adding an epistemological constraint: the problem of evil is a problem that must be resolved for individuals; the problem arises by individuals believing that the proposition set leads to a contradiction. A real solution to this problem will therefore arise when the individual becomes persuaded that the proposition set no longer leads to a contradiction: “Since the problem of evil does not exist in abstraction from particular persons it cannot be solved in abstraction from particular persons.” This means that there is not “the solution” for all people, but rather specific solutions for specific individuals. For contemporary epistemologists, this consideration will come as no surprise. It is another conclusion whispered by Mavrodes that seems more important: this criterion of psychological effectiveness leads the philosopher to understand the problem of evil as “a rhetorical problem.” Epistemologists are typically not interested in the notion of persuasive force or rhetorical methods; this is therefore a fairly remarkable suggestion. However, Mavrodes was not clear on what a rhetorical problem precisely was and what it is precisely that is supposed to offer the requisite psychological effectiveness.
Stephen O’Leary (1996) agrees with Mavrodes’ analysis and goes a good deal further. For O’Leary, the rhetorical problem of evil becomes a forensic rhetorical problem. O’Leary comes to this conclusion by first contrasting the “logical problem” of evil with the “practical problem” of evil. O’Leary no doubt had J.L. Mackie in mind here, who wrote, “[The problem of evil] is a logical problem, the problem of clarifying and reconciling a number of beliefs: it is not a….practical problem that might be solved by a decision or an action. These points are obvious….” (1955). O’Leary claims that the solution to the problem of evil will be found in practical reason; he writes, “Many scholars have argued that classical and modern traditions of rhetoric offer alternative models of rationality to those grounded solely in analytic reason and formal logic.” For O’Leary, Mavrodes’ requirement of psychological effectiveness is best fulfilled in terms of rhetorical model of rationality, what he calls the “juridical pattern of reasoning.” O’Leary calls attention to the fact that judicial rhetorical forms have always been employed in addressing the problem of evil. Not only have deductive methods given way to the “probabilistic criteria of informal logic,” the sort of criteria one will face within a court of law, the
judicial analogy has proved attractive to both sides in this debate: the image of the trial appears throughout the popular and philosophical literature of theodicy…the prevalence of this analogy establishes the utility of examining theodicies as a species of forensic rhetoric.
Although O’Leary does not make this point himself, perhaps the most decisive reason in his essay to employ judicial analogy is found within the way the traditional logical proposition set has been expanded; the contradiction needs an additional premise, and O’Leary allows Nelson Pike to supply it. Here is Pike’s popular proposal for the missing proposition: “An omnipotent, omniscient being would have no morally sufficient reason for allowing instances of suffering.” The problem of evil therefore reduces to a dispute over this additional proposition. If this proposition is true, then the contradiction goes through; however, deciding on the truth of this proposition requires us to determine whether or not God, as a moral agent, has “morally sufficient reason” for allowing evil in our world.
Now the implications for a proper method seem far clearer: as expressed in the title of C.S. Lewis’s collection of apologetic essays, God is in the Dock. God is on trial. The facts of his actions are indisputable: the baby was decapitated by the women’s tormentors for instance. The only question is whether or not a sufficient defense is available for God. The question before the court is if God has “morally sufficient reason” for permitting or causing all the forms of evil we find in the world. If not, God is found guilty and can no longer be considered perfectly good, which would force disbelief in traditional theism. As Kant put it, “The author of the theodicy agrees that the case be tried before the tribunal of reason, and agrees to be an attorney who will defend the case of his client under attack by formal refutation of all the complaints of the adversary” (O’Leary 1996).
This would seem to give us everything we need. Whereas the traditional approach to the problem of evil was abstracted from life and presented in a static perspective, comparing the fact of evil with the fact of God in a timeless fashion, with judicial rhetoric, we now have a temporal perspective, rooted in real life beliefs and emotions about a personal God permitting the evil we experience in the world. We also have the rhetorical tools we need to force the psychological solution, to persuade the individuals of the jury and those later reading the majority opinion of the court.
Faith vs. Reason: The Jurisdiction of the Court
O’Leary uses the four stasis of classical rhetoric to analyze this judicial context. It is the fourth stasis of jurisdiction seems to be a common place of disagreement. O’Leary cites Cicero’s treatment of this fourth stasis:
But when the case depends on the circumstance that the right person does not bring the suit, or that he brings it against the wrong person, or before the wrong tribunal, or at a wrong time…the issue is called translative because the action seems to require a transfer to another court or alteration in the form of pleading. There will always be one of these issues applicable to every kind of case; for where none applies, there can be no controversy.
The most common Hebraic and Christian response to the possibility of putting God on trial hinges on this fourth stasis of jurisdiction. The claim is that humans can not legitimately hold a trial for God. In reply to Erasmus’ protest against God’s determination of man’s moral actions, Luther simply has no use for “human reason” at all, “knowing that she talks nothing but follies and absurdities, especially when she starts displaying her wisdom on sacred subjects.” It is perhaps in this spirit that Luther addresses directly a question dealing with the problem of evil: what of God’s goodness or equity in creating men and women that are already damned as the seed from Adam? Luther writes,
but here God must be reverenced and held in awe…and we must show some measure of deference to His Divine wisdom by believing Him just when to us He seems unjust. If His justice were such as could be adjudged just by human reckoning, it clearly would not be Divine; it would in no way differ from human justice.
According to James Rachels, to acknowledge God as God entails an inability to question God’s moral authority; the term “God” implies total sovereignty. Rachels thinks that the theist who acknowledges God as God, and thereby assumes the stance of worship before God, must agree with Camus who said, “From the moment that man submits God to moral judgment, he kills Him in his own heart.” John Calvin thought that the mere fact of creation implies complete authority on the part of God over his creation. The apostle Paul’s reply to those questioning the justice of God is similar. It is the “power” of God that shuts doors of the human court:
What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? Certainly not!…For the Scripture says to the Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I may show My power in you…whom He wills He hardens. You will say to me then, “Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?” But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” Does not the potter have power over the clay…What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction…? (Rom. 9)
And we hear of the trial silenced many ages ago in God’s dealing with Job. His family was destroyed, his friends and wife became bitter accusers, and his own body was diseased and mutilated. Job cries out, “Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power?…then know God has done me wrong…who has denied me justice.” Job demanded that God put him on trial, but with the ultimate purpose of the court finding God unjust in his judgment and actions against Job. “I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me.”
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)
What we see in these traditional responses is really a combination of two replies: First, man is not in a position of authority to conduct such a trial. We are found morally guilty in even attempting to put God on trial. As Rachel’s said, we kill God in our heart as soon as we even question God’s goodness and justice. We will be in a place of moral foolishness and unfit to proceed with the trial as soon as the trial begins. Job considers this, ceases the trial, and submits to and worships God. As Paul asked, should the pot say to the potter, “Why have you made me like this?” In this scenario, morally sufficient reasons for God’s judgment and actions might be available to us, but they are not of our concern.
Second, man is not in a position of epistemological ability to conduct such a trial. Both Luther’s reply and God’s reply to Job make this clear. What is human reason to God? And even if human reason was of the sort of thing that could in principle seek out a morally sufficient reason for the ways of God, the search is doomed to failure; after all, where were we when God laid the earth’s foundations?
What we have here is I think the best expression of the tension between faith and reason within classical theism. This is really just an extreme interpretation of Augustine’s principle that we must “believe in order to understand”—such antecedent belief is both moral submission to the authority of God and a wariness of its finite and sinful epistemological limits.
However, it is not clear that Paul was not giving an answer of some sort; regardless, Paul was primarily answering the pride of the Jews regarding the inclusion of the gentiles. In a more apologetic context where skeptics were wrestling with evil in the world, we might have found Paul speaking about the universal and unknown God or the poets’ understanding of justice. We see prophets arguing with God on a regular basis after all. And, contra Rachel, it is not clear that approaching God as God requires brute submission to God as King. The Israelites grumbled against God in an irrational fashion given the merciful release from slavery, and the gospel goes out into the world persuading men of the goodness and mercy of God for the purpose of compelling belief. As Paul said, “knowing the fear of God we persuade men.” The requirement that the apologist cease trial in his own heart does not imply that the apologist will demand that the non-believer cease the trial in theirs.
So perhaps the trial should take its course. However, one side of this tension between faith and reason appears inescapable. Perhaps the authority of God does not compel blind assent; but are we not still trapped within a hopeless finitude? Even if there are morally sufficient reasons for God’s actions, will we really be able to find them, and if so, comprehend them? Although O’Leary and philosophers such as Plantinga think that we are cut off from discovering the morally sufficient reason, I do not believe this is a correct assumption to make for either the atheologian or the theologian. Skepticism about our ability to know about God’s justice would imply skepticism about our ability to know about God’s love, mercy, and goodness. If traditional theism can give us a grasp on God’s goodness, then it should be able to give us a grasp on his justice. For Paul, love was a mystery and ungraspable, but he still understood God’s ability to convince men of such love, to experience it. In the case of the Christian story, this seems especially true. I see no reason to assume such a discrepancy about our ability to know of different perfections of God. So let the trial begin. Let God justify his ways to men.
Narrative & Judicial Decision
O’Leary provides a different sort of reason for remaining skeptical about our ability to find a sufficient reason. He reminds us of our inability to locate a sufficient reason for all sorts of occurrences and actions directly within our own experiential purview until some later time. We regularly do not have the ability to evaluate a certain element in the story of our lives until that story is completed. O’Leary is also skeptical about our ability to explain evil or to explain God’s actions, and he cites the work of Stanley Hauerwas and David Burrell in support of this notion. According to Hauerwas and Burrell, Augustine was finally able to address the problem of evil with satisfaction after giving up the attempt Manichean or Platonic attempt to explain the reality of evil; they claim that Augustine finally took rest in a narrative understanding; they write, “The only form which can exhibit an action without pretending to explain it is …narrative.” O’Leary therefore proposes “narrative truth” as what a solution to the problem of evil is after.
However, I think O’Leary misses a good deal of the force of Hauerwas and Burrell’s essay. Following Alasdair MacIntyre they argue that no moral actions are intelligible outside of a narrative context. Narrative truth is not forced into the courtroom due to a unique failure to locate a morally sufficient reason, but is rather the only appropriate way to force a moral conclusion about any agent’s action. I think that Hauerwas and Burrell are right. Cognitive scientists Pennington and Hastie (1992) claim that different members of a jury will come with “differences in world knowledge; that is, differences in experiences and beliefs about the social world.” However, they will all be given the same “evidence and have the same general knowledge about the expected structures of stories.” Jurors come to any given trial with “generic expectations about what makes a complete story.” Each juror formulates their own story and then compares their story “to those offered by the parties in deciding the case’s outcome.” According to this Story Model, it would seem that the basic narrative structures employed when grasping the legal significance of human action become the most objective and given aspect of the trial.
The following gives a concise summary of the necessity of story in judicial settings:
The ‘fair and legitimate weight’ of conventional evidence showing individual thoughts and acts amounting to a crime reflects the fact that making a case with testimony and tangible things not only satisfies the formal definition of an offense, but tells a colorful story with descriptive richness. Unlike an abstract premise, whose force depends on going precisely to a particular step in a course of reasoning, a piece of evidence may address any number of separate elements, striking hard just because it shows so much at once…Evidence that has force beyond any linear scheme of reasoning, and as its pieces come together a narrative gains momentum, with power not only to support conclusions but to sustain the willingness of jurors to draw the inferences, whatever they may be, necessary to reach an honest verdict…
… A convincing tale can be told with economy, but when economy becomes a break in the natural sequence of narrative evidence, an assurance that the missing link is really there is nevermore than second best….
What philosopher wrote these words? This is taken from the majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court in 1997 (Old Chief v. United States). When a certain philosophical point of view is taken up within a recent majority opinion of the Court we have an interesting intersection between the craft of the US Justice and the craft of the philosopher.
This approach can also be fond in more recent analytic approaches to moral philosophy. In an essay discussing moral responsibility, free will, and Frankfurt-Type cases, Fischer cites David Velleman’s work on narrative structure. According to Velleman, “later events are thought to alter the meaning of earlier events, thereby altering their contribution to the value of one’s life.” In an example relevant to our discussion here, Velleman compares the life of a person who struggles in marriage for ten years ending in a divorce and a happy remarriage with the life of a person who struggles in marriage for ten years to final happiness without divorce after the relationship matures. Velleman writes:
Both lives contain ten years of marital strife followed by contentment; but let us suppose that in the former, you regard your first ten years of marriage as a dead loss, whereas in the latter you regard them as the foundation of your happiness. The bad times are just as bad in both lives, but in one they are cast off and in the other they are redeemed.
If we extrapolate this very principle to the life story of God, we have precisely what is commonly assumed to be the most promising argument for God’s defense. For the Christian, it is the full Christian story of final redemption that promises to provide the morally sufficient reason at the end of time; Plantinga writes, “knowledge of the facts of evil does not constitute an internal defeater, at least for those believers for whom it seems very clear that there is such a person as God and that, indeed, the whole Christian story is true” (2000). The evil we experience now might be much like the ten years of a horrible marriage; it is what happens in the distant future that just might provide the very meaning of our current experience.
However, if what I said is true about our knowledge of both the goodness and justice of God, then we should expect to know something of the future justice of God, or else be willing to approach this entire subject with skeptical non-attachment. If complete skepticism about the justice of God is in order, then we are justified in at least a bit of skepticism with regard to a God who is all good, omniscient and omnipotent. Let the trial begin.
Plantinga’s Sensus Divinitatis
There is only one further obstacle I see standing in our way; Plantinga argues that the proper functioning of the sensus divinitatis within an environment sufficiently similar to the kind intended by the design plan would produce a firm belief in God regardless of the evidence from evil against it. This is like perception, when our faculties produce warranted beliefs about the objects in our immediate field of vision. If the evidence from evil was to cause me to cease believing in God then this would be the result of faulty cognitive faculties. My inference forming faculties might be working properly, as well as perhaps my imaginative faculties designed to process narrative structure, forcing the conclusion that God is guilty as charged and without a morally sufficient reason for permitting the kinds and extent of evil we experience in the world. But this conclusion would only be possible if the sensus divinitatis was malfunctioning; hence, the belief about God’s guilt would not have warrant. If Christianity is true, and if Plantinga’s epistemology is correct, then putting God on trial and forcing the conclusion that he is guilty as charged would only force forms of non-warranted belief for those with a highly damaged sensus divinitatis.
Here I think it is important to distinguish the reinstatement of the sensus divinitatis via the instigation of the holy spirit and the original, natural faculty. The former is a personal relation between God and the believer, and not, as Plantinga makes it out, an epistemic “process” on par with a properly functioning cognition. In this case, we are not in the realm of epistemology proper and a believer’s belief about God and trust in His goodness could be addressed in an indefinite number of ways.
In terms of the natural faculty however, it seems as though a defeater against belief in the goodness of God is a possibility. As a faculty that produces warranted belief, the sensus divinitatis can lead to beliefs that are not true, even when functioning properly. Since this universal faculty must work properly in environments similar enough to the design plan and yet different with respect to more fine-grained cultural contexts, there are an unlimited amount of specific beliefs it might generate for any given individual. For some, this faculty leads to the belief that Allah is good, or that a non-Christian deity is good, or that the non-Trinitarian God of Arius is good. The sensus divinitatis alone does not provide a sufficient level of specificity to form specific, meaningful beliefs (I should note that I believe belief “content” is indeterminate before explicit thoughts or utterances result from belief dispositions; this complicates matters here). The sensus divinitatis would have to work in conjunction with other truth aimed, belief producing faculties. If this is the case, then it is possible that all S’s cognitive faculties are all working properly while also responding to the trial in a way that forces the conclusion that God is guilty. If this sensus divinitatis relies on those faculties that process evidence via narrative structure, then it is unable to offer warrant to beliefs about the goodness of God entirely independent of the other faculties.
Yet, even if it could offer independent warrant, the belief forming effects of its proper function could still be mitigated by the other faculties responsible for processing the trial just as the belief forming effects of the proper function of perception can be mitigated by these faculties. In the case of perception, I might start to suspect that I’m dreaming, or come to think that I might have been drugged, or that my friend was trying out his new three dimensional hologram technology on me. Perhaps it looks like there is a book on that table, but that is just because we have placed some special probes in your brain or have used laser technology to create the visual effect of there being a book on the table. Perception being the sort of thing it is, we might have a hard time ridding ourselves of the belief that there is a book on the table, and even once we convince ourselves that there is no book, we might still find ourselves falling back on behavior that assumes there is a book on the table, such as if I was left in the room with the book for a couple days and then asked to grab the book. “Oops! I forgot, there is no book on the table.”
The steady working of a source of warranted belief, whether perception or the sensus divinitatis, does not allow for unmitigated, conscious “belief” in the midst of deliberating evidence against the belief. What will rather be more common is S failing to take sufficient note of the evidence against their belief. Rarely does someone go through with the thought experiment that the book on the table is not really a book on the table; with the Christian, if the sensus divinitatis is working well over many years, the reality of evil will not naturally strike the Christian as defeating evidence against the existence of God; this is not how the Christian has been in the habit of thinking. But for the “mature” believer who takes careful note of their total body of evidence and how evil fits in with that evidence, the person might find himself questioning God as he would the existence of the book. This will not be an instance, as Plantinga claims, of cognitive disorder. Thus, we can imagine an instance of a person, with cognitive faculties working properly, coming to the warranted, rational conclusion (regardless of its truth) that a good God does not exist. If we remove the unique, personal element of Plantinga’s instigation of the holy spirit, then we have reason to conclude that employing narrative in judicial terms is an epistemically appropriate way to approach the problem of evil even if Christianity is true.
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