Concerning the Prosperity of the Wicked

January 15, 2009

I have seen two objections raised against the combination of God’s goodness and providence: how a good God could create evil, and how a good God could permit the wicked to prosper. The first is easily addressed, so here I shall treat the second which, in fuller form, is that while justice dictates that the good should prosper and the evil suffer, it is observed that in many cases the good suffer (witness Job) and the evil prosper.

Key to this is an understanding of true and apparent prosperity. Certainly, justice demands that the good reap good (“to those who have much, much will be given”). But the good granted in reward ought to be the ultimate good, not an apparent good. Similarly, the punishment inflicted on the wicked ought not to be apparent, but actual.

What, then, is ultimate good? Not wealth, for the true good must last, but here “moths and rust destroy”. The true good must inspire confidence, yet the wealthy fear for their wealth. Not comfort, for the true good must beget no ill, and comfort often breeds complacency. Not even life, for nothing is better than the true good, and yet there are some things more valuable than life. Not power, for power wielded poorly is the greatest evil. Not glory, for glory depends on men, and the reward given to men cannot be given by themselves. Rather, the true good is to behold God. All else is only a contingent good, valuable insofar as it serves the ultimate.

Thus, when we behold the wicked man living in comfort and affluence, we should feel no envy, for he possesses not true goods but phantoms. Rather, we should feel pity, for if those mistaken in how to achieve lesser goals are to be pitied, are not those mistaken regarding the ultimate goal to be pitied far more? But yet their wealth may, in the end, bring good, although not as its possessors intend: for he who relies on wealth but has it not can blame his lack of wealth for his sadness, while he who has wealth but not happiness can better realize his mistake as to means and correct himself: “And all that mine eyes asked I kept not back from them; and lo, the whole is vanity and vexation of spirit, and there is no advantage under the sun!” Similarly, we are not to be troubled by the good man living in poverty, for he to may learn a lesson thereby: he has happiness, having been granted a knowledge of God, may yet not know wherein he has this happiness; his poverty can prove to him its true source, while prosperity might lead him into error: “Lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply, and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your god”.

Riches are no true reward, but a lesson through their futility, a lesson needed by the evil, not the good. Therefore, worldly goods better befit the wicked than the good.

“Give me neither poverty nor riches
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say ‘Who is the Lord?'”

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Concerning the Unum Argumentum

November 15, 2008

Perhaps the most intriguing of the sundry logical proofs of God’s existence is the unum argumentum of Anselm of Canterbury, commonly known by Kant’s term, the “ontological argument” (although Kant applied the term to a different argument).

I shall let Anselm present his case, from his Proslogion:

“But surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot be only in the understanding. For if it were only in the understanding, it could be thought to exist also in reality–which is greater. Therefore, if that than which a greater cannot be though existed only in the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be thought existed only in the understanding, then that than which a greater cannot be thought would be that than which a greater can be thought! But surely this conclusion is impossible. Hence, without doubt, something than which a greater cannot be thought exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

Crucially, this argument does not deal with reality, as do the famous Five Ways of Thomas Aquinas, but rather with the thought. Fundamentally, Anselm is not arguing for the existence of God; he is arguing that to doubt the existence of God involves a mental contradiction.

Also important to this argument is Anselm’s definition of “greater”. While I shall not hear attempt to analyze Anselm’s rather complex usage of the term, the important point is contained within the aforequoted passage: to exist in reality is greater than to exist only in the understanding. Thus, “greatest” is equivalent to “greatest in all respects except existence, and existing in reality”. Furthermore, “that than which a greater cannot be thought” is equivalent to “the greatest that can be thought”. Thus, we may restate Anselm’s argument as “That which is thought to be greatest in all respects except existence and is thought to exist cannot be thought to be only in the understanding.” Phrased this way, it becomes nearly trivial, for it is manifestly absurd to think that something defined as existing does not exist. Thus, the argument is a reductio ad absurdum: to deny the existence of God is self-contradictory.

But at the same time, so is to deny the existence of “a unicorn that exists”, for if one asserts that such a unicorn does not exist, clearly one is not referring to the same unicorn. Thus becomes manifest the invalidity of the argument: if we permit such a reductio, anything may be proven to exist. The problem is that thoughts themselves may be false, having no correspondence to reality. To think of a unicorn that exists is to think of a unicorn and to think that it exists; clearly, the second thought is false. Existence cannot signify the unicorn; it can only make a statement about the unicorn, which statement may be true or false. Similarly, to think of the greatest in all respects except existence that exists is to think of the greatest in all respects except existence and to think that it exists; the second statement does not signify the subject, but makes an additional claim about it which may be true or false. Anselm’s inclusion of existence as an element of goodness, however, serves to hide this invalid operation.


A Defense of Reason

October 18, 2008

Reason as the sole organ of understanding

Reason, that organ whereby man relates one proposition to another, is the only original means whereby he can attain understanding. Reason is sovereign above a man’s thoughts; all that he believes must first be accepted as justified by his reason. In saying this I do not claim that all men undergird all their beliefs with a chain of reason sufficient unto properly justified belief by the standards of the philosopher, for they may accept a belief on insufficient grounds, but at all times the justification must be sufficient to their reason. Sensory observation, special revelation, faith–all may contribute valuably to the conclusions of reason alone, but they are grounded in reason, for it is by reason that man deems these credible sources of beliefs.

Reason as self-evidently reliable

Some have objected that our reason is fallen, with our will, and therefore unreliable. The antecedent I grant, but the consequent I deny as a non-sequitur. Let us assume that the reason be not reliable, and discover how far we can proceed. Were the reason unreliable, whence might we learn anything? Calvin suggests the Bible, and special revelation. But is it not an act of the reason, antecedent to our acceptance of the Bible, whereby we declare it to be reliable? Were the reason unreliable, how could we know that our acceptance of the Bible, and not the Koran, is correct? He who holds reason to be unreliable cannot condemn another who has turned to a different source of understanding. I do not suggest that it is possible to attain right doctrine in any but the most general sense without turning to special revelation, but reason is the foundation of our acceptance of special revelation. Kierkegaard suggests faith. But in elevating faith above reason, does he not justify himself by the use of reason? Thus, it is by reason that he concludes that what seems impossible ought to be preferred to what seems obvious, and so reason grounds faith. Faith may profitably build upon reason, advancing beyond the scope of what is knowable by reason unaided, but it always extends from a base of reason; it can never contradict or act without reason. Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος; were reason unreliable, then must also be all else, and man is condemned to total doubt. To deny the reliability of reason is to deny the possibility of belief.

Reason as the mediator of God’s revelation

I do not claim that God deserves no credit for our approach to truth, for he is sovereign above our thoughts as above all else. However, God does not always act immediately, but is often mediated through his creation. God is the lord of the storm; do we thus deny that the cloud brings rain? God is the lord of the harvest; do we thus deny that the sun and the rain cause plants to grow? No, for God’s bringing of the rain is mediated through the cloud, and God’s raising of the plants is mediated through the rain and sun. Thus is God the lord of our thoughts, but through the mediation of our reason, his chosen organ for the attainment of understanding.