Podcasts, Evil and Optimism

It has only been recently that I have discovered pod-casts. It has been a good way to learn and keep up with a few things while over in Japan, not least the old stalwart, Radio 4’s In Our Time and early in the year I immensely enjoyed listening to the BBC Reith Lectures given by Michael Sandel. Podcasts are a great modernisation of the Radio for the digital age and proof that despite the increasingly visual nature of our entertainment, that original medium of mass communication and entertainment still has legs, albeit in a less linear form.

Podcasts also open the way for distributing information as “radio” shows that are not broadcast over the airwaves, indeed most of what is available is such, everything from Language Courses, Japanesepod 101 is indispensable to me these days, to News and almost anything else you can think of depending on what you are interested in. One of the better ones I have found is Philosophy Bites; 20 minutes of philosophical discussion on a given subject with a contemporary thinker well versed in that subject, hosted by Nigel Warburton. It has provided plenty of material for thought.

One particular bite of philosophy was with Marilyn McCord Adams who was discussing the age old Problem of Evil. It should be pointed out that McCord Adams is an American Philosopher of Religion, a theologian and an ordained priest in Episcopal Church of America, and her philosophical credentials are not to be taken lightly, but it seemed to me that her arguments provoked a few questions and thoughts in response.

The central tenant of the argument presented by McCord Adams was that in the face of the world’s horrendous and heinous evils to be in any way optimistic about life was to believe in God because only he could be hoped to correct and overturn those evils. This presents the problem of evil as one that affects all of us.

One key problem in this argument is defining what exactly is “evil”. The word brings to mind certain caricatures of the devil and demons in a simplistic sense; on the other hand it draws the mind towards the horrors of the Holocaust. As usual stated in the problem of evil argument, evil is taken to be anything that causes human suffering. By extension McCord Adams asserts that natural disasters of any kind are horrendous evil wrought upon humanity.

I think this assertion starts to raise some questions. It is undebatable that natural disasters cause human suffering and that that is not a good thing, but it is hard to really state that such things are truly evil, let alone horrendous evil.1 Evil surely implies some kind of intent, malevolent intent. If you believe, and have to justify that belief, that God created the world then I can see why natural disasters are a problem, but if one accepts that we live on a rock, floating in space, that is essentially alive and we are but tiny creatures lucky to be have life at all, then natural disasters are just part of life that we have to contend with in our struggle to survive against Mother Nature and not an evil sent to torture us. That the dinosaurs were wiped out be a meteorite was not a moral judgement just bad luck.

This definition of horrendous evil also does an injustice to the suffering inflicted by the Holocaust and other such atrocities. If evil is nothing else then it is the deliberate suffering inflicted by one human being on another. This then is a question of morality and ethics, a debate that does not need to justify God’s part in our suffering or his judgement of our actions, but is only about how we treat each other as humans and the consequences of how we behave to one another. Given that McCord Adams is also what is called a Christian Universalist, something I will return to later, it would be a shame to think that her arguments in anyway deny the weight of evil of the atrocities we have inflicted on ourselves.

The second tenant of McCord Adam’s argument was about the nature of optimism. Simply being hopeful about a better life implies a belief in God as only he can right the wrongs of the world. The simplest counter to this argument would be to think about what life would be like without optimism. Given that there are people in the world suffering everyday what gives them the will to keep going. If there wasn’t something about life that we valued or could be hopeful for then surely we would all just commit suicide and the human race would actually have become extinct a long time ago, marked down as being a race of severe depressives. We are not Lemmings.2

Another possible counter would be that of evolutionary biology, coupled with Schopenhauer’s idea of the “will to live”. Simply put optimism is biologically necessary for the survival and furthering of the species as a whole and fuels our desire to procreate.

A third counter would be that we are forgetting how much power we do have to change and improve our own situation, as evidenced by the progress of human history and the geniuses that have led it from Aristotle, to Da Vinci, to Einstein. We are not entirely helpless when it comes to improving our situation whether as a species or as individuals. At the very least we each have the desire to give our children a better life.

McCord Adam’s view of the nature of optimism also suggests that something outside of this life is needed to bring value to life. Does being loved by and loving someone whether parent, child, husband, wife or friend, depend on for its value something outside of it. Certainly not, it depends only on the love felt by the two people concerned. Belief or not in a deity does not improve or depreciate that love and the value it holds.

I want to return to the afore mentioned theory of Christian Universalism, only because I think it brings to bare some weight on McCord Adam’s arguments. The main thrust of Christian Universalism, is that all, regardless, have been saved from the fires of Hell whether we believe in God or not. This seems like a very attractive suggestion, and seems a sensible, almost humanist, conclusion to some of the quandaries found in theology, about who should and shouldn’t be saved and why. But morally and ethically speaking it is a very dangerous and slippery slope that could lead to the conclusion that no actions in this life whether good or evil have any consequences in the next life or will deny us a part of “heaven”. If we slide down this slope, evil in any sense is meaningless and illusionary and theological discussion of the problem of evil and optimism are pointless.

This is simplistic and perhaps even pessimistic, but sometimes it is useful to take a conclusion to the extreme to see whether it holds. I think it does, however, highlight the continued need to find a moral and ethical philosophy that is measured in this life by reason and sound judgement on an individual and social level, not by subjugation to an external power, whether that is karma or a deity, to reward or punish us for doing good or evil. As pointed out by many great thinkers to base our moral judgement on such external measures is only to act with self-interest and prudence, not to do good for the sole sake of doing good. Surely that is what we should be striving for, doing good simply because it is good.3

September 2009

 

1. The argument might change slightly as it becomes more apparent that human influence on climate change is affecting many “natural” disasters, but it still would not hold that is caused by a deliberate malevolent intent.

2. Actually it is a myth that Lemmings commit mass suicide.

3. Of course this throws up further questions as to what is good, and how do we measure it etc, but I think we can leave that for another day and to Plato!

Living in Japan one always lives with the knowledge that there will be earthquakes, it sits on the junction of five tectonic plates, yet they were easy to dismiss, despite wonderings about the "big one" coming up in conversation now and again. Occasionally the ground would shake and one would say, "it's an earthquake", but it would pass and life would continue on much as usual. It was just another part of living the Japanese life.

I remember being rather disappointed, when I first visited Japan, at not experiencing an earthquake; it was something that I admittedly took all too lightly. In the several years that I've been here since only once did I feel a fairly big shake, and that was also my first real experience of earthquakes. I remember almost being excited however this quickly turned to grave concern when I realised how seriously the Japanese I was with took the situation. Earthquakes, and indeed Mother Nature, are not something to be taken lightly.

I've likened my experiences with earthquakes to trains. I don't know why, but it seems the simplest analogy to describe what's it like to someone who's never experienced one. That first experience of an earthquake was rather like being in a house right next to a mainline railway line. Everything rattled, swayed, rumbled and shook as if the 10:24 for Edinburgh just came past the door at full speed, except there was an eerie silence. There was no express train roaring past.

Since then there have been many small moving ground events, occasions when I've woken in the night because the room was moving and the door was rattling, or felt the office building shake slightly, but these recent weeks have been something altogether different.

There were warning signs. Two days before the March 11th event, the office building rattled and shook, significantly so, with blinds knocking against the window and the creaking of the building as it swayed under the strain. Most high-rise buildings in Tokyo are designed to sway in the event of an earthquake, that way they manage to disperse most of the energy. For people on the upper floors it feels a lot like being at sea and getting seasick.

I was outside when it hit, almost in the suburbs, enjoying the walk between stations on a sunny afternoon, on my way to teach a drum lesson. I remember thinking, oh it's an earthquake, followed by, oh it's a BIG earthquake. There is something extremely disconcerting about walking on ground that you think is solid, but is visibly moving underneath you. It felt like trying to walk down the aisle of the bullet train as it races along at 300kph, or standing on the deck of a ship at sea, but what caught me again was the relative silence of it all. Yes the houses rattled, the kids screamed and crouched down with their school bags over the heads, and the concrete telephone poles groaned as they swayed like elderly trees in the wind, yet despite that, there was an uneasy quiet. I moved quickly away from the houses, and the telephone cables hanging overhead, lest they fall on my head, to a relatively clear car park, although having done that it was all but over.

The second one hit about thirty minutes later. It didn't seem as strong, although all the some people in central Tokyo thought the contrary because the epicentre was closer despite it being a smaller earthquake. Once again there was the strange moving sensation as the road itself swayed and almost warped in front of my eyes. I was surprised when an African American lady came running out of a nearby house shouting, "Don't you know it's an earthquake?" She sounded panicked. "I know!" I heard myself say, yet I was surprised how unperturbed I was.

I walked, almost ran home, knowing somehow that this wasn't the usual kind of quake and that I wouldn't be able to take the train back, it wasn't nearly as far as some people would have to walk that night, but it wasn't until I saw the scenes on T.V. of the tsunami hitting northern Japan that I really knew how big this earthquake had been. I watched on in horror and disbelief as walls of water swept away everything in its path, nonetheless only when I finally went to bed and tried to sleep did I start to comprehend the potentially life changing significance. We had just felt the 4th biggest earthquake in recorded history.

The continual aftershocks have constantly played on the nerves since then, with major ones, the size of the earthquake that hit Christchurch, New Zealand only 3 weeks earlier 1, occurring several times a day and as many as 30 smaller aftershocks happening an hour, in the days immediately after the main event. I was constantly prepared to run outside should another big one occur, I would even go to bed fully clothed just in case. Once, in the middle of the night, the bed unexpectedly jumped, as if something beneath it had suddenly violently kicked upwards. It wasn't just the bed but the whole of Tokyo that jumped. I have since learnt that there are two types of earthquakes, those that move from side to side, and those that jolt violently vertically!

People still talk about the "big one" as if this wasn't it. Despite everything Tokyo itself has been relatively unscathed, even the aftershocks have circled the metropolis, but people fear that one day a big earthquake will hit Tokyo directly. There is talk of the Tokai earthquake, a devastating earthquake that happens at the junction of two fault lines west of Tokyo every 150 years. The last one occurred 160 years ago! But this could just be random, there are no certainties in seismology, and the enigmatic "big one" might never come. For now we have to deal with the aftermath of the biggest so far.

April 2011

 

1. It is worth noting that the Christchurch earthquake occurred at a depth of only 5km where as the recent Japanese earthquake occurred at a depth of 32km, so it was very destructive despite being smaller in terms of magnitude.

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