Reflections on the Semester: Dostoevsky and the Problem of Evil

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December 10th, 2013

Sahar Habib responded to Prof. Dean Zimmerman’s lecture on theodicy:  Zimmerman began his wonderful lecture by first introducing the argument: there is a logical contradiction in allowing for an all-powerful and all-knowing God who is also perfectly good and benevolent, whilst also claiming that gratuitous evils exist. In this way, we see that Zimmerman is taking the problem to be a theoretical one, as opposed to expressing it as an experiential problem. I want to show that even though there is value in expressing the problem in logical form (that is first showing how the premises of God and evil lead to an absurd or contradictory conclusion, and then solving the problem by rejecting one of the premises, or a disjunction of the premises as Zimmerman attempts), the problem is much more difficult, if not impossible, to solve experientially. For example Zimmerman commented on how it is appalling to try and justify the problem of evil using logical forms to those who have actually faced horrible evils such as holocaust survivors. I think that the idea of being able to solve the problem theoretically while still having reservations experientially is forcefully depicted in a chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Particularly in the chapter titled “Rebellion”.

For those of you who are not familiar with the text, Rebellion includes some heart wrenching tales of cruelty in 18th century Russia. One of the characters Ivan, who is evidently distraught by the appalling acts of cruelty, attempts to give a reflective account as to why suffering exists. His account does not go into as much detail as the theodicy building that Zimmerman indulges in, but it has helped me to understand the general argument of the problem of evil and the theistic, as well as atheistic world views that may solve the problem.  He speaks specifically of the suffering inflicted on children, as love for children does not depend on their countenance or outer appearance, and more importantly because they’re innocent and haven’t “eaten” the apple to have knowledge of good and evil. So it seems to me that he takes the suffering of a child to be a “gratuitous evil” – an unnecessary evil that is inherently bad and no good requires its existence.

Ivan picks a particular story of a particularly pompous general who ruled over his subjects as though they were “dependents and buffoons”. This general locked up an eight-year-old child for accidently hurting the paw of one of his hound dogs. He then proceeded to bring him out the next morning, strip him naked, and commanded that he be torn to pieces by a pack of hounds whilst his servants and the child’s mother witnessed the event. Ivan proceeds to provide arguments that can solve the problem, however He is more concerned to find an answer that he can live with, rather than one which is objectively true or false. Thus he rejects any argument as it brings him no reconciliation. Ivan suggests that perhaps suffering exists because God is mysterious and there is no possible way of knowing his motives on earth. Since God chose our world to make real than it must be the best of all possible worlds and all actions must be for some greater good. Zimmerman’s argument from organic unity seems to be a more sophisticated version of this argument; it seems to extend upon the concept of the greatest good as well as fix the loopholes that philosophers have found over the years. Either way, it may solve the problem theoretically, but something just doesn’t feel right. Ivan puts it perfectly when he says:

” Surely I haven’t suffered simply that my crimes, my sufferings, and I may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer…. It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony. Why should they, too, furnish material to enrich the soil for the harmony of the future? “

For any other solution Ivan comes up with, he has the same feeling that he simply cannot accept it or understand it. He thinks the price of suffering is too high to be justified by any argument and I think people who express the problem experientially have the same difficulty in accepting such arguments.
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