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.