Good Out of Evil

Besides the objection mentioned in the last post, St. Thomas brings up another objection to the existence of God:

Objection 1. It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word “God” means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist.

He replies to the objection,

As Augustine says (Enchiridion xi): “Since God is the highest good, He would not allow any evil to exist in His works, unless His omnipotence and goodness were such as to bring good even out of evil.” This is part of the infinite goodness of God, that He should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.

Does good in fact come from evil, and if so, how does this happen?

Some people are born without the ability to feel physical pain. While someone first hearing about this might think it sounds like a good thing, it is in fact a very bad thing, as noted in the linked post. Children suffering from this condition often bite off parts of their tongue, or fail to notice sprains or broken bones, thus causing greater injury to themselves, and so on.

And after a moment’s thought, this is not so strange. Pain, taken as knowledge of an injury, is not a bad thing, but a good thing; it is the injury which is bad, as well as secondary effects such as distraction from other tasks and so on.

And here we see the primary path, although not the only path, by which good comes from evil, at least in human things. Evil is an indirect cause of the knowledge of evil, and the knowledge of evil is good, and a cause of goodness. In this way a person can benefit even from his own faults and vices, insofar as he learns from them and goes on to do better.

This can happen even with very great evils. Thus for example in the post here, Cameron Harwick discusses how the use of nuclear weapons by the United States, a very great evil, might bear significant responsibility for the peace (such as it was) that followed. Or in other words, without that specific use of nuclear weapons, there might have been a nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which would have been much worse.

None of this is accidental, but in fact tends to happen in a very systematic way, basically for reasons which we discussed some days ago. All things and all people strive for the good, and the knowledge of evil is just one of the things that contributes to their efforts.

Now someone might suppose that the explanation here is too human. Does it not take away the glory from God? Should we not say instead that God brings good out of evil in mysterious ways that are beyond our comprehension?

Now there are surely many things which are beyond our comprehension. But the attitude in this objection is simply the zeal for God which is not according to knowledge. God does not make things in such a way that he merely happens to bring good out of evil, but rather he gives the things themselves such an order and such a nature that it is natural to them to bring good out of evil. And such a creation, which possesses this ability in an intrinsic way, is better and more ordered than a theoretical creation that lacked that ability.

Zeal for God, But Not According to Knowledge

St. Thomas raises this objection to the existence of God:

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

He responds to the objection:

Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

The explanation here is that things do have their own proper causes, but these proper causes do not have the properties necessary to be a first cause. Likewise, the very distinction of these proper causes from one another shows that they must be reduced to a one single principle.

This response is correct, but it is difficult for people to understand. People tend to assume that the objection is fundamentally valid, given its premises. Thus many atheists believe that they have a very good argument for their atheism, and many theists assume that there must be falsehood in the premises. And the ordinary way to assume this is to say that we do see things in the world that cannot be accounted for by other principles.

This leads to an undue zeal on behalf of God, of the sort mentioned in the previous post. There is the desire to say that something was done by God, and only by God; not by anything else. In this way the premise that “everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles” would turn out to be false. The Intelligent Design movement provides an example of this desire. The linked Wikipedia article approaches this with a very polemical point of view, but I am not concerned here with the scientific issues. It is very evident, in any case, that there is the idea here that it would be good to prove that something was done by God alone, and not by any secondary causes. In this way people are jealous on behalf of God: if it turns out that it was done by secondary causes, that takes something from God, and in particular it makes it less likely that God exists.

The truth is mostly the opposite of this. Although nothing can be taken from God, the purposes of creation are better obtained if created things contribute whatever they can to the production of other things. Thus the world is more ordered, and so more perfect simply speaking.

As an example, consider the case of the origin of life. Unlike the process which gave rise to the origin of species, abiogenesis is not an established fact. What would be best, were it the case? I do not speak of the truth of the matter, nor what we might wish to believe about it, but which thing would be better in itself: is it better if life arises from non-living things, or is it better if life is directly created by God? For someone jealous for God in this way, it seems better if life were directly created, in order better to prove that God exists. In reality, however, it is better if life comes to be in a certain order, with a contribution from non-living things, to whatever degree that this is possible.

This is not just a matter of wishful thinking, in one direction or the other, although that can be involved. Rather, in cases of this kind, the fact that one thing is better is an argument, although not a conclusive one, for its reality.

There are many other ways in which this kind of undue zeal influences human opinions, and recognition of the truth of this matter has many consequences. But for the moment we are on another path.

Origen and Adam Smith

Speaking of prayer, Origen says,

Suppose that a righteously minded physician is at the side of a sick man praying for health, with knowledge of the right mode of treatment for the disease about which the man is offering prayer. It is manifest that he will be moved to heal the suppliant, surmising, it may well be not idly, that God has had this very action in mind in answer to the prayer of the suppliant for release from the disease. Or suppose that a man of considerable means, who is generous, hears the prayer of a poor man offering intercession to God for his wants. It is plain that he, too, will fulfill the objects of the poor man’s prayer, becoming a minister of the fatherly counsel of Him who at the season of the prayer had brought together him who was to pray and him who was able to supply and by virtue of the rightness of his principles, incapable of overlooking one who has made that particular request.

The fact that the person’s prayers appear to have been answered by chance, Origen maintains, is merely an appearance. Since God is the cause of all things, he is also the cause, directly or indirectly, of all that results from those things, and consequently of these supposedly chance answers to prayer.

Adam Smith, in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, argues thus:

It is to no purpose, that the proud and unfeeling landlord views his extensive fields, and without a thought for the wants of his brethren, in imagination consumes himself the whole harvest that grows upon them. The homely and vulgar proverb, that the eye is larger than the belly, never was more fully verified than with regard to him. The capacity of his stomach bears no proportion to the immensity of his desires, and will receive no more than that of the meanest peasant. The rest he is obliged to distribute among those, who prepare, in the nicest manner, that little which he himself makes use of, among those who fit up the palace in which this little is to be consumed, among those who provide and keep in order all the different baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the oeconomy of greatness; all of whom thus derive from his luxury and caprice, that share of the necessaries of life, which they would in vain have expected from his humanity or his justice. The produce of the soil maintains at all times nearly that number of inhabitants which it is capable of maintaining. The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.

The inequality of wealth among men, Smith is arguing, is much less than it first appears. There may be a man who theoretically has a million times your personal wealth. But he cannot eat a million times as much as you, but only a little more, if at all. And likewise, in a somewhat analagous manner, in respect to wealth in all the ways in which it touches an individual. And consequently the benefit that comes from that wealth can be, and will be, distributed among other men, not in a perfectly equal manner, but in a manner far closer to equality than one would first suppose.

Smith asserts here that it is the “invisible hand” of Providence that has intentionally designed a world that must have these results. The terminology of the “invisible hand” is used by some modern economists in a more general way, simply speaking of the way in which good results can come about without the explicit intention of the persons concerned, without necessarily intending to say that the good results were intended in any sense, by Providence or anything else.

In reality, however, both Adam Smith and Origen are correct. All things come from the first cause. Nothing is lost on account of the fact that things proceed through secondary causes as well; on the contrary, this only makes everything better.

 

Little Things

Chapter 39 of Josemaria Escriva’s book The Way concerns the topic of “little things.” The whole chapter, and really the whole book, is worth reading. The text is composed in the form of a set of aphorisms, much like Francis Bacon’s work. I will quote two passages in particular from the chapter in question:

823. Have you seen how that imposing building was built? One brick upon another. Thousands. But, one by one. And bags of cement, one by one. And blocks of stone, each of them insignificant compared with the massive whole. And beams of steel. And men working, the same hours, day after day…

Have you seen how that imposing building was built?… By dint of little things!

826. Everything in which we poor men have a part — even holiness — is a fabric of small trifles which, depending upon one’s intention, can form a magnificent tapestry of heroism or of degradation, of virtues or of sins.

The epic legends always relate extraordinary adventures, but never fail to mix them with homely details about the hero. — May you always attach great importance to the little things. This is the way!

The second passage asserts that anything great in human life is essentially composed of “small trifles.” The first passage explains why this is so. The world is an ordered place, and one of the orders found in it is the order of material causality. Since the whole is greater than the part, it follows that great wholes are ultimately composed of little parts, or in other words, “small trifles.”

We often tend not to notice this in relation to human life, because we think of life as a kind of story, and it is normal for stories to leave out all sorts of detail, in order to concentrate on the overall picture. But all of that detail is always present: every day is made up of 24 hours, and everything we do ultimately is made up of individual immediate actions.

Thus Escriva says that we should “always attach great importance to the little things,” because there is no other way to accomplish anything. For example, someone might be assigned a paper in school, and find himself unable to write the paper, because he is constantly thinking of the need to “write a paper.” But “writing a paper” is not an action that can be chosen; it is just not a thing that can be done immediately. And unless it is first broken down into “little things,” it will never be done at all. This is one of the main causes of procrastination in people’s lives, namely failing to see that the larger goals that they wish to accomplish must be accomplished by means of little things, through individual actions. Thus someone might say, “I don’t know why, but I never feel like writing the paper.” But in fact he does not feel like writing it, because he has not yet presented himself with any option that can ever be chosen.

 

More on Knowing and Being

I promised some examples of the point made in the previous post. I will give just a few here, although the point could easily be extended to many more.

Parmenides argues that nothing can come to be, since “what is not” cannot be or become. He also claims that “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be,” and apparently this is intended to cover not only what is, but also the way that it is. Consequently, his position seems to imply a perfect identity between thought and being, even if it is ultimately inconsistent, since he says that human beings are wrong about change and the like, and this implies a discrepancy between thought and being.

Alexander Pruss argues that all words are sharply defined, at least in the mind of God.  He makes the argument, “Words are part of the world, so if there is vagueness in words, there is vagueness in the world.” This is no different, of course, from arguing that since words are part of reality, and some words are universal, there are universal things. There are universal things, if we mean by that universal terms or concepts, and there are vague things, if we mean by that vague words or concepts. But there are no universal cats or dogs, nor are there vague cats or dogs, despite the words “cat” and “dog” being vague.

C.S. Lewis argues, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” As I argued in the linked post, reasons in fact are a kind of final cause relative to their consequences, and they do not exclude efficient causes. This case might be somewhat less evident than the two previous cases, but I would argue that the cause of Lewis’s error here is the fact that, as St. Thomas says, the human mind can understand many things at once only by understanding them as one. Consequently, we can understand that an efficient cause can be for the sake of an end, but if the efficient cause and the final cause are presented as simply two causes, without the order that they actually have, they are not intelligible in this way.

These are examples of speculative errors resulting from confusing the mind’s way of knowing with the way that things are. I asserted in the last post, however, that practical errors can also result from this confusion. There is a very fundamental way this can happen: by nature we know things only if they have some relation to ourselves. The corresponding practical error would be to suppose that those things are real and important only in relation to ourselves. Look around you, and it appears that the world is centered on you. If you take this appearance and attribute an absolute truth to it, you will conclude that everything else has its being and importance in relation to you. Consider that you exist, and that all of the past has past out of existence. It might seem that the past only existed to bring you about.

St. Therese says about humility, “To me it seems that humility is truth. I do not know whether I am humble, but I do know that I see the truth in all things.” This is related to the examples I gave above. Since we know things in relation to ourselves, there is the temptation to suppose that things exist in the very same way. This leads to a false idea about our place in reality. Humility consists, on the contrary, in the truth about our place in reality, as I noted here.

The Actual Infinite

There are good reasons to think that actual infinities are possible in the real world. In the first place, while the size and shape of the universe are not settled issues, the generally accepted theory fits better with the idea that the universe is physically infinite than with the idea that it is finite.

Likewise, the universe is certainly larger than the size of the observable universe, namely about 93 billion light years in diameter. Supposing you have a probability distribution which assigns a finite probability to the claim that the universe is physically infinite, there is no consistent probability distribution which will not cause the probability of an infinite universe to go to 100% at the limit, as you exclude smaller finite sizes. But if someone had assigned a reasonable probability distribution before modern physical science existed, it would very likely have been one that make the probability of an infinite universe go very high by the time the universe was confirmed to be its present size. Therefore we too should think that the universe is very probably infinite. In principle, this argument is capable of refuting even purported demonstrations of the impossibility of an actual infinite, since there is at least some small chance that these purported demonstrations are all wrong.

Likewise, almost everyone accepts the possibility of an infinite future. Even the heat death of the universe would not prevent the passage of infinite time, and a religious view of the future also generally implies the passage of infinite future time. Even if heaven is supposed to be outside time in principle, in practice there would still be an infinite number of future human acts. If eternalism or something similar is true, then an infinite future in itself implies an actual infinite. And even if such a theory is not true, it is likely that a potentially infinite future implies the possibility of an actual infinite, because any problematic or paradoxical results from an actual infinite can likely be imitated in some way in the case of an infinite future.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that actual infinities are not possible in the real world. Positing infinities results in paradoxical or contradictory results in very many cases, and the simplest and therefore most likely way to explain this is to admit that infinities are simply impossible in general, even in the cases where we have not yet verified this fact.

An actual infinite also seems to imply an infinite regress in causality, and such a regress is impossible. We can see this by considering the material cause. Suppose the universe is physically infinite, and contains an infinite number of stars and planets. Then the universe is composed of the solar system together with the rest of the universe. But the rest of the universe will be composed of another stellar system together with the remainder, and so on. So there will be an infinite regress of material causality, which is just as impossible with material causality as with any other kind of causality.

Something similar is implied by St. Thomas’s argument against an infinite multitude:

This, however, is impossible; since every kind of multitude must belong to a species of multitude. Now the species of multitude are to be reckoned by the species of numbers. But no species of number is infinite; for every number is multitude measured by one. Hence it is impossible for there to be an actually infinite multitude, either absolute or accidental.

We can look at this in terms of our explanation of defining numbers. This explanation works only for finite numbers, and an infinite number could not be defined in such a way, precisely because it would result in an infinite regress. This leads us back to the first argument above against infinities: an infinity is intrinsically undefined and unintelligible, and for that reason leads to paradoxes. Someone might say that something unintelligible cannot be understood but is not impossible; but this is no different from Bertrand Russell saying that there is no reason for things not to come into being from nothing, without a cause. Such a position is unreasonable and untrue.

Miracles and Secondary Causes

Insofar as a miracle is commonly understood to be worked by God, people frequently understand this to mean that a miracle is a direct effect of the first cause.

This understanding, however, is basically a distraction from anything important about miracles. Due to the order of the world, everything that happens will happen to some extent due to secondary causes. And it is unlikely that one will be able to prove definitively that any effect could not have resulted from a secondary causes. For example, St. Thomas argues that angels cannot directly cause bodies to acquire certain forms:

I answer that, The Platonists [Phaedo. xlix: Tim. (Did.) vol. ii, p. 218 asserted that the forms which are in matter are caused by immaterial forms, because they said that the material forms are participations of immaterial forms. Avicenna followed them in this opinion to some extent, for he said that all forms which are in matter proceed from the concept of the “intellect”; and that corporeal agents only dispose [matter] for the forms. They seem to have been deceived on this point, through supposing a form to be something made “per se,” so that it would be the effect of a formal principle. But, as the Philosopher proves (Metaph. vii, Did. vi, 8), what is made, properly speaking, is the “composite”: for this properly speaking, is, as it were, what subsists. Whereas the form is called a being, not as that which is, but as that by which something is; and consequently neither is a form, properly speaking, made; for that is made which is; since to be is nothing but the way to existence.

Now it is manifest that what is made is like to the maker, forasmuch as every agent makes its like. So whatever makes natural things, has a likeness to the composite; either because it is composite itself, as when fire begets fire, or because the whole “composite” as to both matter and form is within its power; and this belongs to God alone. Therefore every informing of matter is either immediately from God, or from some corporeal agent; but not immediately from an angel.

It would be a mistake to suppose that St. Thomas has proven his point here. And most likely it would be a mistake to suppose that he believes that he has. When St. Thomas discusses matters that cannot humanly be known one way or another, he frequently picks the position that seems most plausible (or perhaps the position which is most desirable for another reason), and then constructs an argument for it. In this case, it is reasonable to say that a cause has a likeness to its effect. But when St. Thomas says, “either because it is composite itself, as when fire begets fire, or because the whole composite as to both matter and form is within its power,” he is merely speculating. One could simply respond that an angel can cause a body immediately to become informed through some other remote likeness which it possesses.

He may have adopted this position because it seemed most likely to him to be true; or he may have adopted it because it was suited to arguing that certain miracles could not be worked by angels. Either way, in reality one cannot prove such a thing. If a blind man instantly acquires his sight, or even if a dead man comes to life, one cannot prove that secondary causes did not produce these things. And for reasons relating to the order of the world, one would reasonably assume that secondary causes contributed as much as possible to these effects.