A Problem of Evil for Atheists
The problem of the affirmability of life in the face of evil
Suppose you are an atheist who considers life to be worth living. You deny God, but affirm life, this material life in the here and now, and you do so unconditionally, and thus without appeal to any hinterworlds or an afterlife. Suppose you take the fact of evil to tell against the existence of God. Do you also take the fact of evil to tell against the affirmability of life? If not, why not?
In this entry I will argue that atheists face a problem of the affirmability of life that is no less serious than the problem of evil that theists face. I will assume that every atheist is a naturalist and a mortalist. For present purposes, an atheist is one who denies the existence of God, as God is traditionally conceived, and a naturalist is one who affirms that reality, with the possible exception of so-called abstract objects, is exhausted by nature, i.e., the space-time-matter system. Naturalism entails atheism. A mortalist for present purposes is one who believes that a human person is just an animated body, and that when this body ceases to exist, so does the person. Mortalism thus rules out both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body.
Our problem may be set forth as an aporetic triad. Are the following propositions logically consistent? I say they are not. I argue that anyone who accepts both (b) and (c) must reject (a).
a. Life is affirmable.
b. Naturalism is true.
c. Evil objectively exists.
1. What it means for life to be affirmable
To claim that life is affirmable is to claim that it is reasonable to say 'yes' to it and view it as good. Life is affirmed by the vast majority blindly and instinctually, and so it can be; in this trivial sense life is of course affirmable. But I mean 'affirmable' in a non-trivial normative sense. I mean that life is worthy of being affirmed. That life is affirmable in this sense is not obvious. Otherwise there wouldn't be pessimists and anti-natalists. A (metaphysical) pessimist may be characterized as one who holds that it would have been better had nothing ever come to exist. An anti-natalist may be characterized as one who holds that it is morally wrong to procreate. Let me make this a bit more precise.
To claim that life is affirmable is to maintain that human life has an overall positive value that outweighs the inevitable negatives. Note the restriction to human life. I am glad that there are cats, but I am in no position to affirm feline life in the relevant sense of 'affirm': I am not a cat and so I do not know what it is like 'from the inside' to be a cat.
'Human life' is not to be understood biologically but existentially, where ‘existentially’ is to be taken in the broad sense common to Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Jaspers, Sartre, Marcel, et. al. What we are concerned with is not an objective phenomenon in nature, but life as lived and experienced from a subjective center. So the question is not whether it is better or worse for the physical universe to contain specimens of a certain zoological species, the species h. sapiens. The question is whether it is on balance a good thing that there is human life as it is subjectively lived from a personal center towards a meaning- and value-laden world of persons and things. The question is whether it is on balance a good thing that there is human subjectivity.
Now it may be that over the course of a particular human life a preponderance of positive non-instrumental good is realized. But that is consistent with human life in general not being worth living. If my life turns out to have been worth living, if I can reasonably affirm it on my death bed and pronounce it good on balance, it doesn't follow that human life in general is worth living. Let us agree that a particular human life is worth living if, over the course of that life, a preponderance of positive non-instrumental value is realized. To say that positive value preponderates is to say that it outweighs the negative.
The question, then, is whether human life, human subjectivity, in general is affirmable. To make the question a bit more concrete, and to bring home the point that the question does not concern oneself alone, consider the question of procreation. To procreate consciously and thoughtfully is to affirm life other than one's own.
Suppose that one's life has been on balance good up to the point of one's procreating. Should one be party to the coming-into-existence of additional centers of consciousness and self-consciousness when there is no guarantee that their lives will be on balance good, and some chance that their lives will be on balance horrendous? Would you have children if you knew that they would be tortured to death in the equivalent of Auschwitz? Note that if a couple has children, then they are directly responsible for the existence of those children; but they are also indirectly responsible in ever diminishing measure for the existence of grandchildren, great grandchildren, etc. If life is not affirmable, then it is arguable that it is morally wrong to have children, human life being a mistake that ought not be perpetuated. If on the other hand life is affirmable, then, while there might be particular reasons for some people not to have children, there would be no general reason rooted in the nature of things for not having children.
2. Is life affirmable in the face of evil?
More precisely, our question is this. Is human life affirmable in the normative sense explained above by naturalists given the fact of evil? There is a problem here if you grant that natural and moral evils are objective realities. Thus evil exists and it exists objectively. Evil is not an illusion, nor is it subjective. Thus if an Islamist terrorist beheads a baby, that deed is objectively evil: it is not evil from the point of view of the mother, but non-evil from the point of view of the terrorist.
The question could be put as follows: Is it rational to ascribe to human life in general an overall positive value, a value sufficient to justify procreation, given that (i) objective evil exists and that (ii) naturalism is true?
If naturalism is true, then there are unredeemed evils. An unredeemed evil is an evil that does not serve a greater good for the person who experiences the evil and is not compensated for or made good in this life or in an afterlife. Thus the countless lives of those who were born and who died in slavery were lives containing unredeemed evils. In many of these countless cases, there were not only unredeemed evils, but a preponderance of unredeemed evil. Whatever these sufferers believed, on naturalism their lives were not worth living. It would have been better had they never been born. If naturalism is true, then those sufferers who believed that they would be compensated in the hereafter were just wrong. Their false beliefs helped them get through their worthless lives but did nothing to make them worthwhile.
Here is an argument from evil for the non-affirmability of life:
1. Human life in general is affirmable, i.e., possesses an overall positive value sufficient to justify procreation, only if the majority of human subjects led, lead, and will lead, lives which are on balance good.
2. It is not the case (or it is highly improbably that) that the majority of human subjects led, lead, or will lead such lives: the majority of lives are lives in which unredeemed evil predominates.
3. Human life in general is not affirmable, i.e., does not (or probably does not) possess an overall positive value sufficient to justify procreation.
It seems to me that a naturalist who squarely and honestly and in full awareness faces the fact of evil ought to be a pessimist and an anti-natalist. If he is not, then I suspect him of being in denial of what he takes to be reality, or else of believing in some progressive 'pie in the future.' But even if, per impossibile, some progressive utopia were attained in the distant future, it would not redeem the countless injustices of the past.
Who is in a better position, the theist or the atheist? They both face a problem of evil. I say the theist is in a better position. The honest atheist is stuck with an insoluble problem: human life cannot be affirmed reasonably and without self-deception given the undeniable fact of evil. (Atheists typically fail to see the problem because they live in self-deception.) The theist, however, can say that, while we cannot account for evil in our present state, after death we will come to understand what we cannot understand here below.