THE PROBLEM OF GOOD II

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An earlier essay in this collection, The Problem of Good, showed that the famous “Problem of Evil” is really just a special case (mathematicians would call it a “degenerate case”) of a much larger and more general ontological puzzle.

The Problem of Evil, as you’ll recall, asks how the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent God can possibly be consistent with an apparently imperfect world such as ours.

Over the centuries, the Problem of Evil has tended to split the theological and philosophical communities into three camps: those who deny the existence of Evil, those who deny the existence of God and those who question the nature of God (as defined above).

The Problem of Evil rests on a basic assumption, namely that evil objectively characterizes certain events and that we can recognize evil when we see it and label events accordingly.  If ‘evil’ were simply a matter of subjective taste or personal preference, then ‘evil’ would have nothing to do with the existence or nature of God. Likewise, if we cannot recognize evil and label events accordingly, the ‘problem’ evaporates.

But how do we recognize Evil? Evil, absolute or relative, can only be recognized by its contrast with Good, real or imagined. Augustine of Hippo defined evil as the absence of Good and so it is. While it is possible to recognize something good, a beautiful painting for instance, without contrasting that painting with an ugly alternative, it is not possible to recognize something evil without contrasting that entity with a ‘better’ version of itself.

There can be no perception of ugly without a notion of beauty, no recognition of falsehood without a concept of truth, and no rejection of injustice without reference to a just ideal. But this does not mean that beauty, truth and justice need be real; they could just as well be mere concepts.

So the first question we need to ask is whether the Good is real or imaginary? Do beauty, truth and justice objectively characterize real events? Apparently, the answer is yes! We have actual experience of things that are good. Or at least we have actual experience of the goodness in things and that goodness is not merely the absence of evil. There is pleasure that is not merely the absence of pain.

In The Problem of Good, we turned the Problem of Evil on its head and posed a much more general question: How can we account for the fact that we experience Good? How do we even know what Good is? We concluded that Good and Evil do objectively characterize events and that there are transcendent values we can use to assess (or ‘measure’) those events. These values must exist apart from (‘transcend’) the events they measure. But if these values objectively characterize those events, they must also be present (‘immanent’) in those events. But how can values be both immanent and transcendent?

Generally, there are three components to any event: its material substructure, the historical influences (causes?) that condition it and the values that inhere in it and ultimately characterize it. The material (physical and conceptual) and historical elements are temporal but the values are eternal; they are not per se subject to change.

Values are not all of the same logical order. ‘Primary values’, like color, texture, etc. are ‘optional’ and ‘interchangeable’. They have the capacity to enhance the worth of any event they characterize; but ultimately it doesn’t matter whether an object is rough or smooth, red or green, or even colorless.

What does matter is the way in which these primary values come together in the constitution of an event, the patterns these values form. For example, an event may be beautiful, truthful, just, etc. These are the ‘secondary values’ and they refer only to the patterns that primary values form.

Secondary values are not optional and they are not interchangeable. Every event is called to be beautiful, truthful, just, etc., or some combination of the above, depending upon the nature of the event itself. These secondary values in turn are simply manifestations of Value per se, the Good.

On the one hand, Beauty, like Good itself, is a single, simple concept. There is only one Beauty per se; on the other hand, many, many unique things may be beautiful. There are indefinitely many patterns of primary values that are beautiful. Beauty is a single concept with innumerable concrete realizations.

In order for values to be both transcendent (normative) and immanent (characterizing), there must be one event that is comprised solely of values with no admixture of material or historical elements. That event is a-temporal and therefore changeless and eternal; and it is unique. Like all events, it must modify every other event but, unlike all other events, it cannot be modified by any event. We concluded that we talk about just such an event whenever we talk about ‘God’.

So the Problem of Evil leads us to a totally unexpected conclusion: the real existence of God. God not only does not ‘not exist’, God absolutely must exist if we are to account for the objective experience of Good.

But in making this argument we seem to have paid a terrible price. God modifies all events but is modified by none. God is eternal but all other events are temporal (and therefore mortal). So does God really make any difference after all? The world is vitally concerned with God; but is God at all concerned with the world? Does the world even matter to God? And if not, where does that leave us?

The qualities that objectively characterize temporal events derive from the unique eternal event we call ‘God’. The events that these qualities characterize are temporal, but the values themselves, God’s values, remain eternal, even when they are elements in temporal events. The fact that values are present in temporal events does not compromise in any way their eternal nature.

All events begin as the pursuit of Good. How else could an event arise? Without the urge to Good, there would be nothing. Therefore, in addition to primary values, every event must include some secondary value as an element in its constitution, no matter how faint. There are no events without values, no events without Good, no events without God.

In fact, because Evil is really just the absence of Good, a purely evil event would be precisely ‘nothing’ and therefore could not exist. That is why we said (above) that the Problem of Evil is a degenerate case of the more general Problem of Good. That is also why we say that Being and Good are denotatively equivalent.

There is something else in our world that is denotatively equivalent to Good…and that is Love. Traditionally, love manifests itself in three ways:

  • Charity (caritas)
  • Friendship (agape)
  • Eroticism (eros)

Connotatively, ‘Being’ expresses the structural aspect of Good while ‘Love’ expresses its processional aspect. We are accustomed to saying ‘God is Good’ and ‘God is Love’; by extension we are also saying ‘God is Being’ and ‘Being is Love’. From this we can further conclude that ‘Being is Process’ (Heraclitus, Whitehead) and ‘God is Process’ (Trinity).

Now, eternal values are present in events with varying flavors of intentionality and various degrees of intensity. While no event can reject all secondary values throughout the entire course of its evolution, almost all events do reject some secondary values at some stages of their development.

Likewise, few events unwaveringly focus on secondary eternal values ‘with their whole heart, their whole soul, their whole mind and their whole strength’. While secondary values inevitably influence the course of an event’s becoming, those values are often relegated to the periphery of the event’s focus.

In lieu of secondary values, events focus on other events or on themselves. They turn temporal events into ‘faux values’ (fetishes). They substitute those other events (idolatry) or themselves (narcissism) for the Good that is God.

The life of an event is at its core really quite simple. It originates as the pursuit of Good. In the course of its development it may remain positively focused on secondary values or it may shift some or all of its focus to other events, including itself. It may substitute the temporal for the eternal.

Note: there is nothing wrong with focusing on another or focusing on self. Love and Consciousness demand it. However, the focus must be on secondary eternal values through the other and through the self. When the other or the self becomes the focus of the event at the expense of secondary eternal values, that’s when we have a problem.

So at the end of the day, an event, so simple in concept, invariably becomes incredibly complex. It always includes eternal values but sometimes those values are actively rejected and often times they are marginalized. In many cases, it also includes a focus on other events (including itself) as ends in themselves, apart from the secondary eternal values they exemplify.

All events (except God) have both an eternal and a temporal aspect. God is eternal…and so is every other event to the extent that it embodies the eternal values that are inherent in God. When any event other than God becomes a settled matter of fact, it will be a mixture of eternal and temporal elements. Time, of course, that great ontological eraser, wipes away those temporal elements.

The primary eternal values themselves (color, texture, etc.) that are embodied in any real event are, of course, preserved. But they are always preserved. They are always available for ingression into any novel event. They bear no stamp, no memory of the events they help constitute.

What endures with ultimate significance are the unique patterns formed by those primary eternal values in each event. To the extent that those patterns are beautiful, truthful, just, etc. (secondary values), those patterns are eternal too.

The primary eternal values themselves are shared indiscriminately by all events but the patterns formed by those primary values are unique to each event. Put another way, all events sample the same palette of primary values but each event combines those primary values into unique patterns which are more or less beautiful, truthful, just, etc. To the extent that a pattern formed by primary values is beautiful, truthful or just, that pattern is also eternal.

Primary values do not just concern color, texture and other physical properties. There are also primary values that concern emotional and mental properties. Anger, fear and joy are all primary values; so are awareness and even consciousness.

So what is meaningfully ‘saved’ out of every event are those aspects of the event that are beautiful, truthful, just, loving, ethical, etc. They include the physical qualities of the event but they also include the mental and emotional aspects. Each event has its own unique way of being good. To the extent that an event is good, the pattern of eternal values that qualifies it as good, is eternal; and every such eternal event has the potential at least to include mental and emotional content as well as physical.

Earlier we said, “Time…that great ontological eraser, wipes away those temporal elements.” But is that entirely true? It is certainly true that material and hiatorical content of an event are eliminated. But each event’s selection of primary values and its organization of those values into patterns takes place in space and time and those patterns are potentially eternal.

There is only one Beauty, one Truth, one Justice, one Good; but every event is beautiful, truthful or just – and therefore good – in its own unique way.

Through its unique pattern of primary eternal values and to the extent that that pattern of primary values is beautiful, truthful and/or just, every event achieves unique, personal immortality. But that immortality is not just the objective immortality of a settled matter of fact; it is the subjective immortality as well. The emotional and mental values and the patterns they form are conserved. If the event includes the value of self-awareness in time, it includes that value in eternity. Nothing qualitative is lost. All that is lost is the material and historical frame on which the pattern that is the event has been woven.

Finally, it is important to note two more key features that characterize events: they are neither internally linear nor externally serial:

  • Events are quantized. Although their becoming is a process, they are ultimately irreducible wholes. The internal development of an event is infinitely recursive. Guided by eternal values, events act upon themselves and gradually alter, retroactively as well as proactively, the intentionality and the intensity of their orientation toward the eternal values.
  • No event is an island. Every event interacts with all other events but events are also embedded in one another. Events interact with the events that embed them and with the events that they themselves embed. This is how it is that there is solidarity in the universe. This is how incomplete events (above) come to constitute a complete whole; they are ultimately completed by the autonomous events that embed them. The process of embedding is universal and indefinite so at the end of the day there is one unique eternal event that embeds the eternal (good)  aspects of all other events.

A unique eternal event that embodies the eternal (good) aspects of all other events – is that not what we talk about when we talk about God?

Now reconsider the life cycle of an event (above) in light of these principles. We come face-to-face with the great eschatological insights of the world’s major religions and specifically with the doctrines we associate with Christianity:

  • The origin of every event in the pursuit of Good is what we call ‘creation’.
  • To the extent that an event is focused on secondary eternal values, that event is eternal, and this we call ‘salvation’.
  • On the other hand, focus on other events (or the self) as ends in themselves, without regard to the secondary eternal values they embody, is what we call ‘sin’.
  • Sin, uncorrected, subjects an event to mortality. This is what we call ‘judgment’.
  • But the full nature of a quantized event is never determined until the event is a settled matter of fact. Prior to that, the event is always entirely free to redefine itself. The perpetual active possibility of such a redefinition is what we call ‘grace’, the act of redefinition itself is what we call ‘repentance’, and the redefined event is what we call ‘redemption’.
  • The eternal event that includes all other eternal events is what we call the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. The Kingdom of Heaven, purged by judgment of all merely temporal content, consists solely of God’s eternal values. Since all events that consist entirely of eternal values are God, the Kingdom of Heaven is God, specifically God the Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. This is what we call the ‘second coming of Christ’.

In the Problem of Good, we established that in order to deny, or even doubt, the existence of God one must reject a small set of very conservative assumptions. Now, in the Problem of Good II, we have shown that the same reasoning leads naturally to the affirmation of personal, subjective eternal life.