Friday, July 19, 2019

Feinberg’s Defense of God Against Unattached Natural Evil

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(Our back yard, on the river)
In my Philosophy of Religion classes at MCCC I taught on the argument from evil against the existence of God. Here is one response to the question of natural evil.

Theistic philosopher Paul Feinberg, in The Many Faces   Systems and the Problems of Evil, writes helpfully on the problem of “unattached natural evil.” By this term he means: evils that cannot be defended via the Free Will Defense since such evils don’t have desires, intentions, etc.

Feinberg thinks there are four kinds of natural evils. They are:
1.       Evils attributable to human agency.

a.       Sometimes humans start fires that injure people; sometimes blindness is caused by something another person has done; some birth defects are caused by a mother who chose to use drugs during the pregnancy; and so on.

2.       Disorders caused by some genetic malfunction.

a.       Here nothing the parents did or did not do cause some genetic malfunction. A genetic defect may have been passed down through generations. Whatever the evil here, it doesn’t happen as a result of intentional wrongdoing on anyone’s part.

3.       Natural disasters produced by some process within nature but outside of human beings.

a.       Things such as bolts of lightning, earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, crop failures, and so on.

4.       Diseases.

a.       Caused by bacteria or viruses, etc.
Some natural evils are “attached” to some form of free agency. These kinds of evils reduce to the problem of moral evil. That would be category #1 – natural evils attributable to human agency. Natural evils 2-4 are “unattached natural evils.”

For those of us who are Christian theists, how can we explain or account for such evils? Feinberg gives us three aspects to handling them.

I.                    An appeal to the Christian doctrine of the fall and its results.

a.       People ultimately die because the human race fell into sin.

                     i.      In a fallen world people die.

                    ii.      If they die, they must die of something.

                   iii.      One cause of death is disease.

                   iv.      “People may also die in fires, floods, earthquakes, or famines. Had sin not entered the world, I take it that biblical teaching implies that natural processes wouldn’t function in ways that contribute to or cause death.” (p. 195)

                   v.      The ultimate reason for these “unattached natural evils” is that we live in a fallen world.

                  vi.      Feinberg believes this justifies God as allowing these evils to happen to us. “When these evils occur, it is because we live in a sinful, fallen world.” (196) When God hinders these evils from happening, it is an expression of his grace. God owes no one grace, only justice. Feinberg says, “Hence, I can’t see any reason why God is obligated to remove these natural evils in order to show that he is good.” (196)

                   vii.      There are people who will not buy into this explanation because they are not Judeo-Christians. But all that is needed is an explanation that is possible, and that would remove any apparent inconsistency between God and these evils. An atheist, e.g., won’t believe this stuff about “the fall of man” and its effect on the natural order. They don’t share our metanarrative.  Of course not. But for those of us who accept the theistic metanarrative, we have an answer to the problem of unattached natural evil. And since we do not believe in the atheistic narrative we do not hold to core atheistic belief such as, e.g., All that is real is only material (philosophical naturalism), Morality does not exist (Joel Marks, Nietzsche, et. al), and so on. All intra-metanarratival beliefs look weird from the outside.

b.      Because of the fall there are negative consequences for the natural order. For example, humanity must work harder to grow crops, because "thorns and thistles" infest the land. (Genesis 3:17-19)

c.       The entire creation was subjected to futility and waits for the time when it will be set free from its slavery to corruption. (Rom. 8:18-22)

II.                  God created a world which is run by various natural processes that fit the creatures God placed in it.

a.       “Sometimes these processes produce unattached natural evils, so perhaps a way to get rid of these evils is for God to change natural processes. (196)

b.      While this might sound good, “there are serious objections to it… There is no guarantee that new processes would be incapable of going awry and producing natural evils that are just as bad as or worse than those we already have.”

c.       “It is foolish to jettison processes that work well most of the time for the sake of the relatively few times they malfunction and result in evil, especially when we have no idea of what we might get in their place.” (197)

d.      For example, since there is rain in our world, there can be too much rain: floods result and crop failures can stem from those floods. Feinberg writes: “God can get rid of these problems by ridding our world of these natural processes, but why would we want that? We do need rain, sunshine, and the like to survive in our world. Most of the time when there is rain, wind, sunshine, etc., it isn’t harmful. Moreover, not even every earthquake or flood is harmful to us or to other life forms. So why should we expect God to remove these processes altogether? We need them to sustain life as we know it, and there is no guarantee that life as we know it could survive with different natural processes.” (197)

e.      Take, e.g., bacteria. Sometimes they cause disease. But often they do not, and often they perform helpful functions, such as breaking down ingested food so that it can be digested. Feinberg, following Bruce Reichenbach, suggests that were God to eliminate bacteria, the world would have to run according to different natural laws. “Therefore, to prevent natural evils from affecting man, man himself would have to be significantly changed, such that he would be no longer a sentient creature of nature.” (198)

f.        “In short, to rid the world of the negative results that can accrue from these natural phenomena we must also forego the benefits they bring. Hence, it isn’t wise to request their removal, especially when we have no idea of what might replace them.”

g.       Therefore, “I conclude that unattached natural evils are also justified in that they stem from natural processes which most of the time don’t produce natural evils and which are necessary to life as we know it. In a fallen world, it is possible for these processes to malfunction, and empirically, we know that they occasionally do. Still, to remove these processes from the world would remove life as we know it without any guarantee that what would replace these processes would avoid natural evil. Our world, then, is a good world, because it includes natural processes which make life for human beings possible.” (199)

III.                It is possible that God intervenes to prevent harm from unattached natural evils more than we suspect.

a.       Feinberg realizes that he can’t prove this. But it is not impossible that God’s miraculous intervention keeps more of these evils from happening than do happen. “Just because we don’t see the miracle doesn’t mean God isn’t working to preserve us. There is no reason that his intervention (miraculous or otherwise) must be observable in order for it to be actual, anyway.” (200)

b.      If a critic complains that it looks like God did not intervene and stop a natural evil from happening, the critic “shouldn’t suppose that he has raised a devastating blow to theism when he asks why God hasn’t intervened.” (200)

c.       Again, an atheist would object to this. But of course, since the atheist does not think God exists. Feinberg writes, “I note, however, that none of these objections points out an internal inconsistency in my theology. They are all objections on grounds external to the system. Moreover, many of these objections amount to a complaint that God didn’t make a better world than ours.” (204)

Here is Feinberg’s conclusion. He writes:
"In sum, when addressing natural evils, one must first divide between those that result from moral evil and those that are unattached to specific sinful acts that produce them. The former evils should be handled by one’s answer to the logical problem of moral evil. As for unattached natural evils, they result from living in a fallen world. God could have avoided our disobedience only by creating subhumans or superhumans, and neither is what he wanted. Moreover, unattached evils result from malfunctioning natural processes, but those processes function without harming anyone most of the time, and they are necessary for the survival of the creatures God created to populate our world. 
In addition, God wants his human creatures to be able to exercise freedom in order to function in this world. But the exercise of freedom requires a natural order that is predictable. Hence, God forgoes performing a miracle on some occasions in order to maintain that regularity. For all we know, on many occasions he may intervene to keep more of these evils from occurring. Since these evils stem from living in a fallen world, a world for which all of us are ultimately responsible, God isn’t obligated to remove any of them by miracle or otherwise. His preservation of us from more maladies is solely a function of his grace.
Complaining that this defense doesn’t cover every instance of unattached natural evil fails to see that the problem of unattached natural evils is about those in general. Asking for further explanation about why this evil happens to one person and not another changes the discussion to the religious problem of evil. Finally, whether dealing with natural evils that result from moral evil or with unattached natural evils, the defenses offered render my theology internally consistent and thereby solve its problems of natural evil.” (203-204)