« When People Tell You Who They Are, Believe Them | Main | Hannity Shreds RFK, Jr. »

Wednesday, October 11, 2023


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

It’s a strong argument, Bill. And I have noticed a similar problem, which I call "the problem of goodness for the problem of evil."

If one’s atheism rests on the evidential problem of evil (EPoE), and yet one takes human life to be affirmable (i.e., worthy of affirmation because objectively good or of positive value), there is a problem that needs some explaining. What accounts for the goodness of human life if evil exists and God doesn’t, which is what the EPoE holds? Why wouldn’t a Schopenhauerian pessimism be the more reasonable view?

The problem is even more stark if the atheist is also a naturalist.

Moreover, it seems to me that (b) and (c) don't sit comfortably together.

b. Naturalism is true.

c. Evil objectively exists.

If reality is exhausted by the space-time-matter system, what is evil? What (ontological) room is there for objective evil?


It seems that there might be room for even more precision in the argument. With respect to ‘human life,’ there are distinctions between (roughly):

(i) the contents (experienced and not experienced) in a life;
(ii) that which contains those contents;
(iii) that which enables the experience of the experienceable contents in the container;
(iv) the possessor of the container.

Option (i) is something like the sum of positive and negative contents such that, in a particular life, as you note, a preponderance of positive non-instrumental good might be realized.

Option (ii) is something like one’s life-career or lifespan, which holds all of the positive and negative items in one’s lifetime.

Option (iii) is consciousness, or subjectivity, which one must have to experience the experienceable contents of (i). (By the way, as we’ve discussed in other threads, how will the naturalist defend the reality of consciousness, which is required to affirm the value of life and to experience the experienceable goods and evils of it?)

Option (iv) is the person who possesses consciousness.

It gets more complicated because (i) – (iv) can refer to a particular human life (say, the life of Abraham Lincoln) or to human life in general.

So, if we suppose that human life is worthy of affirmation, are we talking about the preponderance of positive over negative contents in a life? In life in general? About the container of those contents? About containers in general? About a particular person’s subjectivity? About personal subjectivity in general? About a person who possesses subjectivity? About persons in general?

It seems that you have (i) in mind, given your discussion of the preponderance of positives over negatives. And yet, given your question about whether human subjectivity in general is affirmable, I’m inclined to hold that your main emphasis is on something like (iii).

Am I reading you correctly?


Thanks for the comments!

As for your first, it looks as if we have independently stumbled upon the same basic argument. Has an article along these lines been published in the phil of rel journals?

Your second comment, Elliot, is also very good. You are getting at the problem of the ontological status of evil. The privatio boni theory of Aquinas doesn't seem to cut the mustard. Evil has a positivity that belies the notion that is is merely a lack of good.

As for comment 3, here is where things get complicated.

Your (i) suggests a distinction between experienced contents, whether good or bad, and experienceable contents that one missed out on. For example, some people never experience requited love. They have experienced the ecstasies of being in love, which is of positive value, but have never had their love returned. These people have not been betrayed or cheated or harmed in their relationships: they just met with indifference.

I agree that there is a distinction between the contents of a life and the life. The latter is a process whereas the former are phases of that process. Both should be distinguished from the subject of a life which is presumably not a process or a phase of a process but a diachronically self-identical endurant (as opposed to perdurant). Of course right here controversy will erupt.

The subject of a life -- the liver of the life of you will -- is a synchronic and diachronic unity of consciousness and self-consciousness.

One assumption I appear to be making in the Stack article is that human life in general is affirmable as on balance good only if (in the end) every particular human life is affirmable. This brings God into the picture as the One who will insure that every human being has a crack at ultimate felicity if they want it. For human life in general to be affirmable it is not enough that my particular human life be affirmable. My life despite the negative has been on balance good so that, if I were to cease to exist tonight, my life would be affirmable. If I am annihilated tonight, the game was worth the candle -- which is not to say that I would want to repeat it with all the details the same. No thank you! One go-round on the wheel of samsara is quite enough! (No eternal recurrence for me.) Up or out! (Like tenure).

But if the game is worth the candle for me, that is not to say that the game is worth the candle for all.

Here's a question: if you can't bring yourself to affirm life for all humans, how can you be a pro-natalist atheist? For you have no assurance that your babies will not suffer the fates that many are now suffering at the hands of the Hamas barbarians.

Is it plausibly arguable that only a theist can be pro-natalist?

>>One assumption I appear to be making in the Stack article is that human life in general is affirmable as on balance good only if (in the end) every particular human life is affirmable.<<

Very interesting. Suppose one is interested in (a) the affirmability of a particular human life regarding the sum of positives and negatives in that human life and (b) the affirmability of human life in general regarding the sum of its positives and negatives.

It seems to me that an agnostic answer is reasonable. Consider this line from Eliot’s Middlemarch: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’’

There is a (or perhaps several) hidden aspect of human life. Given this hiddenness, perhaps we can’t approach this question from the bottom up by counting the positives and negatives in a particular life to know whether it is on balance good or bad. A fortiori, we can’t accomplish that task for human life in general, or for all human lives in the history of the human race.

Hence, regarding the question “Is human life affirmable in terms of its goods outweighing its bads,” a reasonable answer is “We cannot know. The answer is beyond our ken.”

However, we might instead approach the topic from the top down. For example, if one has good reasons to be a theist, one can, as you noted, have reasonable faith that God will ensure that everyone has a chance at felicity. This seems to be a kind of rational practical postulate along the lines of Kant’s postulates of God, freedom, and immortality.

>>Evil has a positivity that belies the notion that it is merely a lack of good.<<

Yes, that seem right. It seems that evil is not just a lack of goodness.

>>For example, some people never experience requited love.<<

That’s a good example. Another example is slander. One might be slandered yet not experience it. One might never even be aware of it. The slander is bad, not experienced, though experienceable.

I apologize if I’m commenting too much on this topic. I don’t want to hog the discussion space. This issue really charges me up!

>>it looks as if we have independently stumbled upon the same basic argument. Has an article along these lines been published in the phil of rel journals?<<

Yes, by the looks of it, we’ve encountered a cluster of related problems. I’ve read quite a lot about the PoE over the years. I don’t recall seeing any articles published on any of the topics in our cluster. In fact, I’ve been thinking about publishing on this general issue.

>>Is it plausibly arguable that only a theist can be pro-natalist?<<

It seems to me that this is plausibly arguable, though I’d have to think more about the question.

Back to the question of whether human life in the sense of (i) (that is, the contents in a life) is on balance good.

Given the principle of organic unities, it seems that even if the negatives outweigh the positives in (i), it might be the case that (i) is of positive value. For example, (i) might be overall good because of the values of the relations between the negative and positive contents, or because even if the negatives outweigh the positives quantitatively, the positives might outweigh the negatives qualitatively.

The principle of bonum progressionis concerns the significance of increased value over time. For example, a life which moves diachronically from bad to good is better than a life which goes from good to equally good, and also better than a life which starts well, gets consistently worse, and ends in a bad place. This principle seems to fit well if there is an afterlife during which God ensures that things get much better for us even if they were on balance bad before death.


I appreciate your comments. I have been thinking about them. I spent about an hour thinking about the Middlemarch quotation, but then didn't write anything: too many conflicting considerations. Time and energy are in short supply which help explain why I am not as quick on the trigger as you. I also suffer from a plethora of interests. I wonder if I can interest you in discussing with me the issues raised in the presuppositionalism post. You have a sharp analytic head and may be able to poke some holes in what I have been saying.

Did you ever read my entry on the bonum progressionis? I should review, revise, and upload it to Substack. I am revising and uploading a lot of my material to Substack to preserve it in case TypePad goes 'woke' and pulls the plug on me. We live in dangerous times in which the demonically-driven outweigh the morally decent.


I haven’t read your entry on the bonum progressionis. I should take a look. I’ll also check your presupp. post. Thanks for the invitation.

An hour on the Middlemarch quotation! That topic would make for a good discussion.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 10/2008



February 2024

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
        1 2 3
4 5 6 7 8 9 10
11 12 13 14 15 16 17
18 19 20 21 22 23 24
25 26 27 28 29    
Blog powered by Typepad