Thursday, June 01, 2006

John Beversluis's Critique of the Problem of Pain

This is my exposition of John Beversluis's critique of The Problem of Pain. It is part of a paper I have been writing on Lewis and A Grief Observed. It is unfotunate, I believe, that Beversluis combines this critique of The Problem of Pain with an attempt to show that in A Grief Observed Lewis abandoned a previous commitment to what Beversluis is calling Platonism. This is because, in his critique of the Problem of Pain, he actually claims that Lewis turns out to lapse into Ockhamism after professing Platonism. That being the case, he can't very well say that there is a retreat into Ockhamism in A Grief Observed, if the real retreat took place in The Problem of Pain in the first place.

In this section, I am not attempting to defend Lewis against these criticism. I think it has been done by effectively by Thomas Talbott in C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Evil (Christian Scholar's Revew, 1987) and James Petrik (International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 1994). In future posts I may present their replies.

Beversluis’s Critique of The Problem of Pain
As I indicated, his critique of Lewis’s theistic arguments is not the main argument of the book. This begins when he criticizes Lewis’s treatment of the problem of evil. Beversluis begins by contrasting the Platonist view, according to which our ordinary conception of goodness is commensurable with the concept of goodness as applied to God, and the Ockhamist view, according to which what we mean when we say “God is good” has nothing to do with what we mean when we say, for example, that “My friend is good.”
Consider the following presentation of the argument from evil.
(1) Gratuitous evils, (evils that do not contribute to a greater good) probably exist.
(2) Gratuitous evils are incompatible with the God of theism (omnipotent, omniscient, all-good).
(3) Therefore, the God of theism probably does not exist.
This argument has a presupposition that some Christians have questioned. It presupposes that "good" is somehow independent of the will of God, and that it has some objective meaning independent of the will of God. That presupposition, which Beversluis calls Platonism is that "the term good cannot mean some thing radically different from what is means when applied to men." The opposing view is that he calls the Ockhamist view, set forth by William of Ockham. This is Beversluis's exposition:

According to this view, when we talk about God's goodness, we must be prepared to give up our ordinary moral standards. The term good when applied to God does mean something radically different from what it means when applied to human beings. To suppose that God must be conformed to some standard other than his own sovereign will is to deny his ultimacy. His is not under any moral constraint to command certain actions and to forbid others. He does not, for example, forbid murder because it is wrong; it is wrong because he forbids it. If God would command us to murder, then that would be our duty, just as it was the duty of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, or Elijah to slay the prophets of Baal, or Joshua to slaughter the Canaanites right down to the last woman and child. Some Ockhamist Christians have even gone so far as to say that God could have reversed the entire moral law and made virtues not only of murder but of adultery, theft, coveting and bearing false witness. As Ockhamist John Calvin puts it, "The will of God is the highest rule of justice; so that what he wills must be considered just...for this very reason, because he wills it." (Calvin's Institutes, book 3, chapter 3, section 2) And one contemporary Calvinist, Gordon H. Clark, surpasses even Ockham and Calvin on this point. "God .... cannot be responsible for the plain reason that there is no power superior to him; no greater being can hold him accountable; no one can punish ... there are no laws which he could disobey."13
Lewis, of course, steadfastly opposed this Ockhamist position. He wrote:
It has sometimes been asked whether God commands certain things because they are right, or whether certain things are right because God commands them. With Hooker, and against Dr. Johnson, I emphatically embrace the first alternative. The second might lead to the abominable conclusion (reached, I think, by Paley) that charity is good only because God arbitrarily commanded it—that He might equally well have commanded us to hate Him and one another and that hatred would then have been right. I believe, on the contrary, that "they err who think that of the will of God to do this or that there is no reason besides his will."14
However, while Lewis steadfastly proclaimed his commitment to Platonism in The Problem of Pain and elsewhere, Beversluis questions whether he really remains faithful to his professed Platonism throughout The Problem of Pain. On Beversluis’s account, Lewis uses three stratagems to explain evil and suffering:
1) An “inexorable” nature that is required for communication between two or more conscious beings.
2) Human (or demonic) free will.
3) God shattering our illusions to bring us to knowledge of himself.
Although Beversluis is critical of the use of the first two ideas to alleviate the problem of evil, it is the final category that leads Beversluis to claim that Lewis has fundamentally and fatally compromised his “Platonistic” view of the goodness of God. First, Beversluis contends that in order to permit the Shattering Thesis Lewis presents a discussion of the concept of divine goodness that essentially alters the concept of goodness, making it unrecognizable. Second, Beversluis charges that the concept of goodness in The Problem of Pain is so harsh that it violates the standards of morality that we routinely impose on human beings. Finally, Lewis’s belief in redemptive suffering leads to abhorrent consequences when applied to actual human sufferers.15
Now it is important to notice that Beversluis does not charge C. S. Lewis in the Problem of Pain of actually becoming an Ockhamist. He explicitly denies this:
At this point, I should perhaps allay possible suspicions that I am going to end up claiming that Lewis was really an Ockhamist. I am not. What I do insist on, however, is that by the time his argument has run its course he no longer claims that God’s goodness is recognizable in any ordinary sense. On the contrary, he suggests that we can call God good only if we are willing to assign a new meaning to the term.16
However, he maintains in the end he says,
How is Lewis’s view with its new meanings for good and love different from the Ockhamist view he deplores? In The Problem of Pain we are confronted with an apologist emphatically endorsing a view that he almost immediately lays aside for a position that differs only semantically from the position he claims to reject. By the time he has finished, our “black” has become God’s “white”, and moral standards have been reversed. What we call suffering, Lewis calls having our illusions shattered. What we call happiness, Lewis calls self-indulgence. What we call a moral outrage, Lewis calls a compliment. What we call kindness, Lewis calls indifference. What we call cruelty, Lewis calls love.17
Here I must confess my total puzzlement. Why isn’t he accusing Lewis of becoming an Ockhamist. Recall above how he defined Ockhamism:
According to this view, when we talk about God's goodness, we must be prepared to give up our ordinary moral standards. The term good when applied to God does mean something radically different from what it means when applied to human beings.
From this we can draw two conclusions. One is that Beversluis believes that Lewis’s Platonism is compromised beyond repair in his analysis of divine goodness in The Problem of Pain, and that this compromise is not sufficient to make him an Ockhamist. The only thing I can infer from these two claims is that on Beversluis’s view Lewis has not become an Ockhamist in The Problem of Pain he fails to see the Ockhamistic implications of his own position. But I would still point out that according to Beversluis’s definition, people who radically alter the definition of goodness are Ockhamists, whether they perceive themselves as such or not.
However, this is going to cause a problem when Beversluis tries to say that Lewis, at least temporarily in response to his own grief experience, accepts an Ockhamistic view of God. It would be one thing to argue that Lewis was an uncompromising Platonist in The Problem of Pain and then lapsed into Ockhamism in A Grief Observed. It is another to argue that Lewis’s position in The Problem of Pain “differs only semantically” from Ockhamism, and then to argue that he actually does become an Ockhamist in A Grief Observed. What is the “semantic” difference?


PAGEY said...

Beversluis also said that arguments lead absolutely nowhere, he said this when talking about the idea of socrates' to "follow the argument wherever it leads"

Jeff Carter said...

Apparently, both Beversluis and Ockham failed to notice that man craftily changed his definition of good over the years. By the time you get to Hume, Bentham and Mill, it good is essentially the equivalent to pleasure. That is radically different from the Christian and even the Platonic concept.

The "Problem of Pain / Evil" only arises when we define good as equal to pleasure. I've blogged about this in "What is the Meaning of Good?"; "Meaningless Suffering and Pain: Hume's Definition of the Problem"; and "The Problem of Pain Revisited."

Tom Conway said...

I see no evidence that there is a loving, compassionate God. Quite the contrary, as Ehrman expresses, there is an abundance of evidence that there is no such God. Would such a God be so vindictive as to condemn a person to suffer eternity in a horrible hell? It is quite clear that the concepts of hell and the devil were invented by man. People desperately want to believe in God. Religion is basically a "warm fuzzy". It's all folklore. The overwhelming majority of people will believe in whatever they really want to believe. They believe in what they were brought up to believe. C.S. Lewis is just another example of that. It's really all quite simple. So many people go to great complicated convoluted lengths to obfuscate this, because it threatens their comfort zone. For the most part religion does no harm, but unfortunately, it very often does.

The Happy Atheist