The Events in Japan and the Epicurean Paradox

Epicurus and his paradox

This post might be a bit disjointed for some of my readers, as I’ll be combining my assessment of a current event with a philosophical question that I believe is contextually relevant. But I believe that many events in the world can and should be looked at not only analytically, but philosophically. Almost everything that happen to humanity, be it the work of man or of nature, bears some sort of ethical, existential,  or philosophical significance that must be taken into account and understood.

The tsunami that stuck the Northeast coast of Japan was brutal, which is to expected from an earthquake that has broken many records, including being the fourth strongest since 1900, and the strongest known one in Japanese history (needless to say, it is a good thing such a quake didn’t strike the mainland). As expected, the devastation has been immense.  Entire towns have literally been wiped out, and it is believed that upwards of ten thousand people may have been killed, and hundreds of thousands remain homeless and without basic amenities. Japan’s elderly population has borne much of the brunt of this catastrophe, as they make up most of the population of the rural areas that were affected.  They could not outrun the waves, and their age makes them particularly vulnerable to the injury and dearth of supplies that usually affect survivors of such disasters. Many of them are even recalling the horrors of the air raids in World War II.

Relating to that event, Japan’s prime minister has called it the most difficult time in Japan’s history since the end of that war, and various estimates of damages rage from $14.5 billion to over $100 billion, all at a time when the Japanese economy has been stagnating and the government struggling with public debt larger than the country’s collective GDP.  Needless to say, this crisis could very well affect Japan for years to come.

There has also been much attention focused on the fate of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, which has been damaged by the tsunami and is experiencing a series of explosions as the authorities try to avert a meltdown. As typical of news reports following disasters, there are many unknowns and misconceptions muddling up the facts. From what I’ve gathered as of the time of this post, the chances of a nuclear meltdown is minimal, though the Japanese authorities admit that some of the individual reactors within the plant may have already experienced meltdowns.

There is also much concern about radioactive contamination, with levels of radiation higher in the surrounding Chiba prefecture being 10 times the normal limit. It is even higher than normal in Tokyo, 155 miles to the south,  not yet high enough level to cause any health problems there. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated in response to this “disaster within a disaster.” Many are viewing this development as a validation of the idea of weaning off of nuclear power, and closing down most of all plants.  Others, however, are taking a more apologetic view.

In any case, I feel that the Japanese, given their advanced technology and communitarian values, would be better suited to handle this situation than most other nations. Indeed, it so far seems that a lot more people would’ve died had it not been for it’s better preparedness and advanced early warning system. Japan’s long and tragic history of geological disasters has given it  a lot of experience with the matter.  I can only hope that it does indeed amount to something, given the unprecedented difficulty of this catastrophe.

But now I must shift to my second topic in this post. As with every major disaster that befalls humanity, an inevitable thought in most people’s minds is: what role, if any, did the divine play in all this? It’s typical, almost reflexive, for people to speak of praying for those affected, or asking God for mercy. Less benignly, many people will try to link such occurrences to an act of God, as punishment for some sort of mortal transgression perpetrated by either those affected, or by humanity as a whole. Of course, I understand that not all religious people think this way. In fact, I am fortunate for not personally knowing anyone who holds such a disturbing and demented notion, not least because of how utterly irrational it is: a loving, benevolent God striking down his own children as a lesson for their misbehavior? It’s wrong on too many levels to fit in this one post.

However, there is a different sort of response that many others, myself included, that these sort of events elicit: where exactly is God in all this? Why would he let this happen? What does he think about these tragedies? It’s something I’ve heard both theists and secularists ponder alike. It’s an age-old theodicy problem that nonetheless continues to haunt humanity to this day. How does the problem of evil fit with the notion of a transcendent, benevolent, and omnipotent God? I suppose my reflection is best summed up in a paraphrase of the Greek philosopher Epicurus’s riddle:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Another variation of this, also attributed to Epicurus, goes like this:

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

For the sake of accuracy, note that this sort of trilemma was raised by many of the ancient Greek skeptics, and may have been falsely attributed specifically to Epicurus by Lactantius, an early Christian theologian. In any case, he has long been most associated with this statement, and many philosophers have since posed similar paradoxes, with many more trying to address it. I’ve read my fair share of counter-arguments and “solutions,” but none have thus far been satisfying. I would share them here myself, but I have little time to do so at the moment (I’ll likely update this post later, if anything).

So instead, I pose this question to you dear reader. Give me your take on this ancient theodicy problem.

23 comments on “The Events in Japan and the Epicurean Paradox

  1. I made this picture using similar logic.

    When deities are assigned labels by their fiction authors of omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent these deities run into all sorts of problems.

    How could God justify ever the mayhem of that tsunami? How could he explain all the thousands of innocent dead? If God was real then he clearly couldn’t be one or all of the above to let this happen.

    If you know something is about to kill thousands and do not act while being fully capable of acting. Can you be omnibenevolent?

    A lot of religious like to say fucked up things like God was punishing them for sin, sins of gays, or not groveling enough etc.

    Then God being all knowing and all powerful should have just killed those he was unhappy with via brain aneurysm in their sleep. By allowing the innocent people to live he would show his omnibenevolence.

    That is how a loving god should act but even my own words of him deciding to kill those he was unhappy with is fucked up. Why couldn’t he use his power to make them be better people? To educate or enlighten?

    Then there is the whole omniscient God not really being able to get angry unhappy or have emotion.

    The idea of a deistic type God could have some merits for discussion but any of the Abrahamic Gods and any described like them is just silly.

    When you start looking into the actual text of the bible you see so many more errors made to believe in that fiction.

    Omniscient God’s would not have to prove anything to Satan or himself. He would know how Lot would fare in his tests or if Abraham was willing to kill his son.

    It goes on and on.

    That is my answer. I hope I didn’t miss anything 🙂

    • As always, thank you for your feedback Mike. You’re image drives down the point quite soberly. I agree with your assessment, and I’ve tried to play through every possible explanation.

      A frequent answer that I encounter is that God is keeping his distance because such events serve some greater ulterior purpose that is ultimately to humanity’s benefit (the aptly called “God has a plan” or “work in mysterious ways” argument). The existence of evil allows us the ability to define what is good, and to live that out. These sorts of obstacles also give us growth and development, and in persevering through them we become empowered.

      The problem, however, is that these things still seem unreasonably callous to me. Why would God make so many people miserable just to teach the rest of us a lesson, however valuable? Why allow evil at all, given his abilities? If God created everything, than either he created evil (if so, why?) or it was a natural by-product (but then why allow it? Why allow your children to suffer?).

      It is for these reasons that deism remains the closest thing to a logical form of theism I could think of.

  2. While you don’t know me directly, I’d like to express my appreciation the chances that you’ve given me to not only learn but think for myself. Not enough of the knowledge empowered share their gift, and it has been a long time since I have read something that expressed someone’s thoughts with such care. I’m humbled by this because it’s been rare that I get to discuss and immerse myself within these topics that are very important to me. I’m sorry if this is too long.

    In any case, I’m glad that you posed such a great question at the end of your post. While I label myself as a Buddhist, Buddhism actually provided me with a philosophical beginning (it’s likely that this is one of the purposes of Buddhism). As a person I believe that one should forge your own thoughts in life, and discovering knowledge for yourself, because it’s likely that things such as religion, philosophy, and purpose are things that belong to the one who holds them. The Buddha was said to agree with such a notion.

    Now why did I talk about Buddhism? Because Buddha didn’t talk about God much, it may be due to the fact that a singular God was a foreign concept to him, but I’d like to believe that it was more about what we need to do as people. I believe that he didn’t discuss God because God (or the gods) wasn’t his to discuss, it was for his students to discover, and define the Soul for themselves.

    I sometimes hypothesize that like the greatest symbols or metaphors, the Soul and God have a different meaning to every person. I think this might have meant that the Buddha couldn’t define God for someone else. Perhaps this “God” can be Gods, a man, a woman, the Soul, or can even be the Self.

    In the end, Buddha just didn’t talk about such things much, and many Buddhists ascertain that such questions about “who created the universe?” and “what is he doing now?” are irrelevant to the easing of earthly suffering, for many reasons that I feel are valid. Development of knowledge and compassion are important to the Buddhist.

    So how does God fit into this disaster in Japan—I think that answer will definitely change from person to person, as God is different to each. What do I think? If the tripartite of the western God hold true (Omnipotence, Omniscience, Omnibenevolence), then the only way the events in Japan can happen is if one of them didn’t apply. The most benevolent and idealized version for me would be that God isn’t omnipotent, we have free will, and that he can’t merely change who we are. Perhaps there is something important and great that can be learned from Japan and what has happened or any terrible event for that matter, and we must learn it for ourselves for it to be of any value.

    All in all, as a largely Buddhist/Shinto nation, I hope that Japan can use that compassion and inner strength to not only conquer this setback, but learn from it to allow their society and humanity to grow better, and possibly thrive in the future.

    • I just realized that my conclusive statement is worded so that I am attributing compassion and their inner strength to Buddhism. Forgive me, I didn’t mean to imply that, and I can’t edit my post.

      I meant more that as a Buddhist/Shinto nation, I hope that those who give their faith to Buddhism/Shinto can receive solace and comfort from their faith. I’m hoping that their faith isn’t in vain and that it can provide them with at least something to strengthen their hearts.

      I hope that as a whole, the people of Japan can be inspired to work together in compassion and overcome this huge tragedy and turn it into something good.

    • Wow, what a post! I really appreciate you taking the time to think this out and give me a proper response. I’m very touched and honored to know that I’ve helped give you that opportunities.

      In any case, it is interesting that you mention Buddhism. I’ve taken much interest in the faith recently, and of all the religions I’ve researched, Buddhism seems, comparatively speaking, the most compatible with science, reason, and these sorts of theodicy problems. Indeed, Buddhism has a much stronger philosophical component, which allows it to adapt to changes in human thinking (for example, the Buddha’s refusal to deal with topics that wouldn’t have been feasible to answer at the time prevents any conflict between Buddhism and, say, evolution).

      In any case, you bring up an interesting proposition that I often entertain: something about our understanding of God, if he exists, is “mis-translated.” What if God is indeed impotent. What if he isn’t omnsicent, but is still nonetheless powerful and omni-benevolence? What if, horrifically, God is actually not all that benevolent?

      • The philosophical component in Buddhism is likely so strong because the religion was born in times of intense distrust of religion in India. The priestly caste had control and power that was abused in immoral ways. The people of India went into a period of deep mistrust of religion. This period is where a lot of the philosophies of India were born, and even the Hinduism of modern times has been honed towards a better place by that skeptic era. The Buddha likely had to argue his position, and make sure it was at least sound before he could even get people to listen to him!

      • That coincides with what I’ve read as well. Good explanation! Essentially, Buddhism emerged as a reaction to the decadence of corruption of religion. In a sense, it could be considered the first “New Age” faith, with respect to tapping into more spiritual components while shying away from too much dogma and fundamentalism. Many Buddhist practices, such as mindfulness and meditation, have been proven to have a secular and scientific basis in their advantages. Heck, Buddhism is one of the few faiths I am aware of that can actually be implemented simultaneously with other religions. Very interesting stuff.

  3. Sorry I’m a little late to the party. Voddie Baucham I think has a really interesting take on the issue of theodicy, sort of the “put yourself in God’s shoes instead of your own” position. I think we can delve much deeper into this and talk about free will and where God fits in the production, promotion and permission of evil. But first, I encourage you to watch the video at this link. It may give you a new insight.

  4. 1. God is all-powerful
    2. God is all-loving
    3. God is all-knowing
    4. Evil exists

    Is this logically valid?

    Okay so free-will defences actually negate God’s willingness to work against evil – for some strange romanticist love of free-will (which the Bible does not endorse). Also it knocks down God’s all-powerfulness by means of stating that God chooses to forgo some power so we can have free-will – because apparently it’s flippin’ amazing this free-will (which the Bible does not endorse). So I won’t go with that.

    Instead: what do you mean by evil? “Well, people dying and stuff.” Why is that a bad thing? “Because life is a good thing.” That’s nice, random process has the effect on people. Actually, really these are all value statements (and kind of talking of morality – what is morality but value used to judge the acts of an agent? [here God).

    Before you can pose this question you must demonstrate the grounds upon which you call something evil.

    Moreover, I would ask: what if it all turns out right in the end? What if the only thing that messes with everything is the fact that we are in time? Maybe God isn’t stressing because He’s sent His Son who has essentially cleaned it all up, the rest is just details.

    It is the necessity of the medium that words can wound and heal.

    • I take it then that you do not believe in free-will? Or am I misinterpreting, and you’re simply talking about romantic takes on the subject? I am quite tired, so forgive me if this post and my other are disjointed.

      Assuming there is no free will, than does that mean some people are “destined” for hell, while others for salvation?

      Evil is indeed a loaded term, but in this case, for the sake of simplicity, I am using it in a broad sense for all the things that humans perceive as universally negative: starvation, tyranny, murder, injustice, death, and so on. Value statements or not, these are things that profoundly affect and hurt people – so what is the purpose? Why have evil, be it “natural” or “human?”

      In any case, I have difficulty contending that an all-powerful God, even if he has such a plan, could bear to see such suffering unfold regularly. What if some of those killed were in transition, hoping to reach him so as to gain salvation, only to be cut short and end up in hell? It seems all this would be far from trivial.

      I’m also concerned that this notion could breed a sort of self-centered nihilism that I’ve seen among some Christians: all that matters is faith in God, and what happens in this world is inconsequential so long as one believe in him and is thus secured in salvation.

    • I think the Bible quite clearly endorses the nature of free will actually. From the very first instructions given by God to Adam in the Garden, with it came the ability to choose (whether to eat the fruit or not). So I think free will is a potent piece of this argument.

      My approach to the problem of evil would be this (and Romney, this is for you to answer, since you are the more skeptical of the group here): could evil exist without man?

      • I have difficulty in comprehending free will within Christianity, especially given how so many Christians seem to disagree. I understand that there are arguments against the existence of true free-will, such as predestination or divine monergism, but others that validate it, such Arminianism. My question would be: if God is omniscient, how could there be true free-will, since he knows everything that can and will happen? Doesn’t that mean he will know who will ultimately make what decision – that some will end up being damned in the end? I’ve read arguments by Christian apologists attempting to account for this, but I’d like to read your take.

        As to your second question, I’m of the belief that evil would not exist without humans to both perpetrate it and define it. Only sentient beings have such a concept to begin with.

      • Good points and questions, and thank you for responding.

        Regarding free will, I think it’s important to note that God as an infinite and eternal Being does not view things in terms of time the way we do. There is no “before” or “after” in the eternal, so God sees all things as simply happening, not necessarily in any sequence of events. So God knows the choices humans will make, yes, but that in no way limits free will, because infinite knowledge doesn’t imply acting on that knowledge. So an omniscient God can still allow for free will. God desires that all men would choose Him, but knows that some won’t, just like we as human parents wish our kids never to be harmed, but know realistically that some harm will come to them along the way.

        To my question, this belief of yours would therefore remove the responsibility of evil from God’s shoulders and put it squarely on man. If evil wouldn’t exist without man, wouldn’t it be man’s responsibility to stop it from happening, since he is the only one that can cause it?

        To assume God’s responsibility for something He did not create is to look at from a man-centric perspective, which is sort of the point of the video I posted earlier.

      • No problem, I don’t have much time nowadays – hence my recent post about being busy – but I try to respond when and where I can. Anyway…

        Given your explanation, can we really call it free will when there is only one right option? If I give you only one right path, the other being clearly wrong, then where is the freedom? You’re essentially extorted into only taking one path.

        As for the problem of evil: God created everything, and would certainly have known that evil would be among them. Why have evil at all if he could’ve made the world however he wanted, including devoid of evil? I understand the argument that evil, however horrible, has it’s uses. But God could’ve made a universe beyond our comprehension that wouldn’t have needed evil. With such infinite power, why not make the best possible world?

      • I think you’re confusing free will with something else. Free will doesn’t apply to how many right options there are. Free will is about the ability to choose which option you take. Think about this example: I have a toddler who I have told not to take off the outlet covers from our living room. She knows that doing this will result in immediate time-out. So she’s aware that she can either leave the covers on or remove them, and she’s aware of the punishment. Yet sometimes, she still removes the covers. Why? Because I have not removed her ability to choose. And that is what free will is–the ability to choose between options.

        Why did God not create a world devoid of evil? The simple answer is free will, but let me elaborate. If God were to stop all evil, He would have to eliminate free will. Why? Two reasons: 1) Based on your response, we’ve shown that man is responsible for evil, so to eliminate evil God would have to remove all possibility for man to commit evil—and when there is no choice, there is no free will, so we would essentially be God-controlled robots. 2) If God were to intervene to stop an evil act, in order to ensure that the natural course of free will would not cause another evil, He would have to intervene in every subsequent act and choice of every human. And this gets us right back to the idea that we no longer have any choices, and free will no longer exists.

        And if free will doesn’t exist, relationships cease to exist, and there is really no purpose for human existence. In what situation would free will not be better than absence of free will as it pertains to the quality of human existence?

        So what we’re left with is that God understands the best means to achieve the best ends is to maintain free will, and so evil is permitted by an all-powerful and all-good God in order to achieve the best possible ends in this world, which only a Being with perfect knowledge and perfect wisdom can know.

        Any inference that we would know what the best world is would imply omniscience and omnisapience, which none of us possess, so we can’t logically make such a claim as to a world being devoid of evil being “better” than a world where evil exists. I hope that all makes sense.

      • You make a good argument concerning free-will, but consider a similar scenario: if I give you the option between two very specific choices – salvation and horrific damnation – than there really isn’t any free-will in the matter, because one of the options is indisputably the wrong one. Giving someone the choice between two polar extremes seems like a false freedom. The toddler example makes sense in a secular, everyday context. But when one is speaking of a universal scale, with our entire individual existence on the line, I find it difficult to accept that there can be said to be free will. God has made it clear that only one path is correct,:the equivalent of a mugger pointing a gun to your head and saying you have the choice between giving him the money or refusing, only to get shot. In such a scenario, you could loosely be said to have free will, but in actuality you’re significantly constrained.

        As to the problem of evil, consider that a being with perfect knowledge and wisdom could certainly devise a world in which a lack of free-will wouldn’t be a problem to us. We’d be of a whole other universal existence in which a the absence of free will isn’t an issue, and the very non-existence of such a concept would, by definition, not trouble us. We only look down on the “God-controlled robot” scenario because of the kind of world we’re living in and accustomed to. But barring all this pontificating for the sake of argument, I do have some concerns similar to that about the problem of hell and free will that I am touching on above.

        For one thing, the idea of Grace, if I understand correctly, is that God could convert the heart of every sinner yet leave the freedom of the will intact. How does God decide for whom he intervenes on behalf of, and whom he doesn’t? And what of those who have never heard of Jesus or the Christian faith, past and present? Humans have been around for 100,000 years, so why did God wait so long, amidst all that suffering and ignorance, to step in? And why in only a specific part of the world, through a book that is so cryptic and difficult to comprehend, to this very day?

        Perhaps I am asking too many questions at once. I’m trying to keep all this to a minimum given my limited scope to answer. Forgive me if I don’t get you too quickly.

  5. The level to which you are constrained doesn’t negate free will, so only having one correct option doesn’t change the fact that ultimately the choice remains to pick it or not. That is what free will is, not giving only one correct option to pick.

    How do we know that world without free will would be a better world than the one we’re in currently? That seems a bit like you’re overstepping the line in supposing that knowledge.

    And how would God convert the heart of every sinner yet leave free will intact? If God is doing the choosing, then there is no free will on behalf of the human. God doesn’t intervene with salvation on behalf of specific people. God’s grace is sufficient for all, but efficient for some. That is to say, all people could theoretically be saved, but not everyone will choose to accept that grace, and so it doesn’t work out for them even though they have the option to choose.

    The Bible teaches in Romans 1 and 2 (which I still encourage you to read honestly and objectively) that God has revealed Himself to each person in this world (through nature, through Scripture, or both), and that each person will be judged according to their response to the knowledge and exposure they have of God. So to say God hasn’t reached everyone, even through the course of history, doesn’t really fit.

    I know you think the Bible is cryptic, which is why I encouraged you to read it without preconceived notions or interpretations. The plain text is not nearly as cryptic as you would think, if you would open yourself up to it. I hope you’ll take that challenge seriously, because it can and should change your life.

  6. Nice essay but no is more or less like you are claiming the orignality of everything.Re-write this and reference all the quotations used.

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