If you’ve spent much time around this site, you are probably familiar with other posts that I’ve done on the problem of evil, as well as guest posts on the topic. In fact, there’s a category on the main menu specifically for posts relating to theodicy. If you have any passing understanding of theology at all, you’ve no doubt run into the philosophical and theological problem of evil.
In short, the theodicean question is: If there is a God, why is there so much evil?
Now, we shouldn’t kid ourselves here. For theists, especially for Christians, this is rightly labeled a “problem.” I wouldn’t call this problem insurmountable or ultimately defeating for Christianity. But for those of us who have inherited the tradition of Christian theology, particularly through the lens of classical thinking, the problem of evil poses a genuine challenge and one that we should be intentional and thoughtful to approach.
But today, I want to consider the other side of the theodicy coin. You see, just as Christians (and theists in general) must contend with the problem of evil, so too must secular atheists contend with what is sometimes called the problem of good.
The Problem of Good
In short, the problem of good asks: If there is no God, why is there so much good?
Of course, there are all sorts of answers that one might give to this question. For instance:
A lot of the arguments from the Christian side of this debate center on trying to prove that without God there are no such things as objective morals, no real right or wrong, no genuine bad or good. From here, the theist argues that objective morals do exist (it’s kind of the default assumption) and therefore God must exist.
I find this line of reasoning interesting and (when articulated carefully) pretty compelling, and maybe I’ll flesh it out in more detail in a future post. But that’s actually not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about good, not as an objective moral reality, but as a subjective experience, which (in my humble opinion) might actually hold more weight.
Don’t Kill My Vibe
Let me give you a scenario. I have two little kids, currently a three year old and a one year old. I like my kids quite a lot, and I love playing with them. Sometimes when we are playing we get into fits of laughter where chuckles turn into giggles, and giggles turn into roaring, belly-shaking bellows. Occasionally when this happens, I will pause just long enough in that moment to be cognizant to what is happening. In those brief seconds, I am aware, truly awake to my experience. It takes intentionality, but it’s pretty magical.
What I feel in those moments is that I am touching the transcendent, that my children and I are sharing in something that goes beyond mere chemical processes in our brains, that we are tapping into a joy and love that runs deep in the fabric of reality.
Now, as a theist, particularly as a Christian theist who believes that the God who created everything (Gen 1; Col 1:15-17) is in His very nature love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), when I experience such moments, I believe that I am tapping into the very essence of God Himself. I believe that as I am sitting there on the floor laughing and being filled up with an overflow of love for my kids, I am experiencing and participating in the same other-oriented, outward-focused power of divine love that brought the cosmos bursting into existence. In this sense, what is happening in those moments is not confined to my living room, but is part of the ongoing love-event of God’s perpetual movement throughout all of history, and my children and I are being caught up in the transcendent flow of beauty, laughing along with the music of love that all the stars and galaxies dance to.
And that, I think, is beautiful.
But how do you explain what is going on in those moments in purely naturalistic terms without killing the vibe? It seems to me (and I’ve spent some time thinking on it) that any explanation of beauty, love, and transcendence that doesn’t appeal to (or at least allow for) something beyond the natural world tends to diminish the beauty, loveliness, and transcendence, not enhance it. If our most otherworldly moments can be thoroughly explained by appealing only to the material processes of this world, then we haven’t made them more otherworldly, we’ve rather clipped their wings and grounded them in this world.
Doesn’t that mean something? Isn’t there something important to take note of here? It seems to me that the more you know something, the more it should become meaningful to you.
For instance, I work a lot with software. The more I learn about software, the more I am able to experience it. It would be strange if the more I learned about software the less I were able to use it, wouldn’t it? This is a simplistic analogy, to be sure. But I think the point of it is significant — that the more I know and believe about a moment of transcendence, the more transcendent it should be to me… not less.
Facts and Fairytales
So, what? you might say. So what if you want those moments to be deeper, richer, more transcendent and magical. They’re not, so just grow up and get on with life.
But is that really the end of the story? Is this all there is? Certainly life is not all fun and fairytales. Some of life just sucks. Real tragedy, suffering, and sorrow exists. Often life just isn’t as wonderful as we wish it were. But does that observation encompass all of reality? Just because some parts of life suck and are less beautiful than we’d like, does that mean that all of life is less beautiful? Does that mean that the most beautiful moments we ever do or could experience are no more than the sum of their parts?
I find such a notion deeply lacking and unsatisfactory, and so I reject it. I don’t want to get into too much of it right now, but over the last few years I have become increasingly convinced of the truth-value of aesthetics, that something’s beauty is somehow tied to its truthfulness. I am only recently beginning to really explore the philosophy of aesthetics, but I think there is something important and telling in the fact that I, we, all of us (or at least most of us) really do want there to be magic and mystery in the world. Even the impulse to wish for the way things could (or should) be has a lot to do with the way things are on a fundamental level.
Or maybe I am naive, and life really does have less color to it than I think. Or maybe naturalists should admit that there’s more going on here, and stop killing the vibe.
What do you think?