The problem of evil (it's a little long but I think it's well worth a read)

I would like to see if anyone can answer the following questions related to the problem of evil.


"Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?" — Epicurus


Most of the christians think this problem can be answered by appeal to free will.  It cannot.  The first reason is that even if the free will argument worked (it doesn’t) it only answers a fraction of the problem.  At best it could only resolve the problem of the evil that we do to one another.  What about natural evils -- diseases, plagues, natural disasters etc.?  Some however have argued that God allows for both moral evils and natural evils in order to provide for the conditions necessary to create virtues like ‘moral urgency’ and allow for the possibility of ‘genuine responsibility’ (Swinburne).  In other words, the idea is that, though pleasures are important, God desired to create a world that not only includes them but also is full of moral significance and includes higher moral virtues.  The claim is: without a certain degree of evils and suffering, this would not be possible; thus God allows them.  The key words in this defense, however, are 'certain degree' (enter the evidential problem of evil).  Thus, even if we accept that there be some ‘higher goods,’ could we not attain them without so called egregious horrors -- namely, the plagues of history, the holocaust, tsunamis, starvation and AIDs in Africa?  

Others argue that if God started intervening we would live in a world of simulated but not real moral significance.  Fair enough but even if one accepted this, though God may not then intervene in every case, surely he would still intervene in acts of egregious evil like the holocaust and would never have created things like cancer and AIDs.  Can it be that an all good god would allow such ineffable horrors as the holocaust for the sake of some greater good?  Was Hitler then an instrument of God?  But the real question then becomes: where is God's sense of moral urgency?  If this issue of moral urgency is of the highest moral order, how can it be that God utterly lacks it -- and lacks it precisely so that we might develop it?  And how can it be that ones ultimate reward for sufficiently developing these virtues is paradise in the next world where the, supposed, second order good of human happiness now gains first order status and is fully maximized, while the, supposed, paramount virtues like moral urgency are thereby rendered absent?  There is something clearly backwards about the logic of this sort of theological apology.  For there to be any really meaning to the claim that 'God is an all good god' one must be able to describe the sufficient conditions for this.  That is, one must effectively be able to describe what a world with a sadistic god would look like in contrast to ours.

Or is it that God does in fact intervene but does so in such a way that we are unaware of it?  Who's to say humanity would not have already blown the world up ten times over were it not for God's intervention in human affairs? -- intervention that must remain a secret for the sake of the great moral experiment that is our world.  Many religious individuals argue that it is presumptuous to argue that god has not in fact intervened in human affairs on many an occasion -- for surely god could do so without our knowing.  The truth however is that, under this precedent, the case for Theism in terms of the problem of evil in fact becomes exponentially more morally unacceptable and embarrassing.  Consider: if god does and has chosen to intervene in extreme moral circumstances to prevent extreme injustices and sufferings, the testimony of history establishes a moral boundary that is impossible for religion to bear in terms of the problem of evil, the conception of god as omnibenevolent, our understanding of morality and justice, and his sense of moral urgency; for, since the holocaust was allowed to happen it seems evident that it then must fall on the morally acceptable side of the boundary in god's eyes and was not sufficient to warrant his intervention.  Who could possibly believe in the justness of a god that would establish such a moral boundary?  And no appeal to the cheap notion that ‘god’s ways are not man’s ways’ has any hope of truly resolving this problem.  Richard Rubenstein (author of After Auschwitz) is one of those rare theologians with the moral fortitude and braveness to hold the notion of god morally accountable in terms of a consistent and unselfish conception of justice by abandoning, entirely, the notion of divine intervention in the moral wake of atrocities like the holocaust in a last ditch effort (by his own admission) to render god intelligible and consistent with the notions of justice, benevolence, and omnipotence.  In my opinion this is the only possible, morally acceptable, conception of God.  One has to give up divine intervention altogether.  I don’t understand these people who believe that God healed them of some disease or other.  If he’s omnipotent it takes no more effort to prevent the holocaust as it does your cancer.  What kind of a god would say the former is morally acceptable but the latter is not?  I thought god was no respecter of persons?  Moreover I don’t understand the idea that god is somehow a sympathetic ally in a cruel and harsh world that can be marshaled to your aid if you submit an arbitrary array of rituals and beliefs.  Isn’t this ally the very creator of this cruel and harsh world?All of this simply raises the obvious next question: why would an omnipotent and omnibenevolent god choose to create and subsequently stand by idly, allowing the world to continue to be full of unnecessary sufferings?

    However, one might respond by saying that God factored in human action and ingenuity as the limiting factor of both moral and natural evil.  In other words, that a certain balance is achieved through human action and urgency that maintains a delicate balance with natural and moral evils so as to provide the ideal context for developing higher virtues and moral urgency.  This solution however only creates more problems in that even a superficial look at history proves that the problem of evil is fundamentally not a constant sum game.  For, it is obvious that human ingenuity and capability have not always been equal in history.  Consider the rampant plagues of history; consider how much longer the average life span of humans is today compared to history.  Consider how many more people perished in a given natural disaster before the advent of modern technologies that provide early warning systems.  If human ingenuity is considered the limiting factor then a new and savage problem arises: has modern human ingenuity offset the delicate balance of evil and moral urgency and virtue building, or has it merely arrived at that balance which was absent in previous times?  If the Pareto-optimal ideal is to be found in history, then are modern medicine and technology doing humanity a disservice?  And if so why would God allow it?  Or if modern science has merely allowed humanity to arrive at this delicate balance, why would God have allowed an excess of suffering in history?  The point is that human progress in terms of treating diseases and avoiding natural disasters presents a huge problem for those who maintain that moral urgency is the limiting factor of evil.  An appeal to a fallen world theodocy may be able to answer some of the problems with natural evils, but, in addition to being an absurd fairy tale, it cannot resolve these latter problems.

In fact the free will defense has as many problems as the fallen world theodocy -- and more still when you try and put the two together.  The idea is that if god truly is omnipotent and "not restricted by conditions of possibility" why did he not create beings that are truly free yet only affirm and do good?  The argument in response is typically: "‘beings that are truly free yet only affirm and do good’ is a contradiction in terms and not possible even for an omnipotent being; a world with genuinely free beings is morally superior to one where beings are simply automatons programmed to do good.  In fact it is the very choice between good and evil that imbues one’s affirmation of the good with real moral significance".  The problem, however, for Christianity, is that within its doctrines there exists just such a being who was perfectly free yet only affirmed and did good.  The likely response to this remark would be that Jesus Christ was a special case whose essence was divine and not human.  Fair enough, but why then create humanity in the first place?  Why not create a world of such beings?  Christian theology itself shows that there can be a being who is genuinely free and yet only chooses to affirm good and is able to resist temptation (as Christ allegedly did on a number of occasions).  So why then was Adam not created so if he was only created for the purpose of freely loving God and an entity such as Christ is capable of fulfilling this but without all the pitfalls of human nature?  Who is to blame for this but God?  Ironically, Christ's very existence in Christian theology seems to nullify his purpose in it and, of all things, aggravate the problem of evil with respect to it.  And how is it that humanity fell collectively because of one individuals transgressions and yet each subsequent person will be judged individually in terms of the consequences of that transgression?  You can’t have it both ways.  At best then the whole theodocy of the fall amounts to little more than a set up by a sadistic god who, one could argue (as the pseudonymous author B.C. Johnson did in his article "God and the Problem of Evil"), gave us free will not so that the good we chose to do would be that much more significant and good, but so that we could freely choose to do evil thereby making the evil even more significant and evil than if he had simply programmed humans to always do evil.

And what about the problem of moral luck that philosophers like Nagel have discussed at length?  This issue further aggravates the problem of evil.  Which is it: does god create each soul uniquely (i.e. "he knew me before I was born" -- in which case what is the point of your life) or did he just create one general human soul and it is the circumstances of our life and choices that determine who we are?  If it’s the former then how can anyone be held responsible for anything they do -- and couldn’t he have then spared us Hitler?  Or if it’s the latter then it looks like the circumstances into which we are born fully determine who we are -- and here again it looks like no one would be responsible for anything.  Moreover, if it is the latter case then why not create beings of general type god-man-jesus in the first place?  As Sartre argued, the only way the idea of moral responsibility makes any sense is in terms of atheism.

The final question is this: even if somehow the free will defense and the fallen world theodocy can answer the problem of evil, why would god create a world that is simply a means to the next?  Shouldn’t death be welcomed if you are ‘saved’ and this is really the case?  Wouldn’t the actions of people like Andrea Yates actually be virtuous and selfless under this twisted world view?

I will become a Christian the second anyone can answer these questions... along with about 101 others which we can get to once someone can answer these.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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