Friday, March 16, 2012

Presentism and future-based theodicies

Suppose that:

  1. There was or is a time t at which God was justified in permitting the then-present horrendous evils of the world only in reference to non-present future goods that God would bring out of them.
For instance, it may be that prior to the Incarnation, God's justification in permitting the evils that then existed involved the Incarnation. Or it may be that many evils are only justified in reference to an afterlife in which they are redeemed and defeated.

For Augustinian reasons according to which evil is but a privation, I am not that sure of (1). But the practice of offering answers to the problem of evil almost always makes significant reference to the future, and this makes me think that (1) is generally taken to be fairly plausible.

Now suppose presentism is true. Then only present goods exist. Imagine that the time t mentioned in (1) is present. Then the present horrendous evils of the world are only justified in reference to future goods, which don't exist. But how can a horrendous evil—say, an instance of truly intense suffering—be justified in reference to something that simply and certainly does not exist? A world that contains horrendous evils and no justifying goods seems to be a pretty bad world, the kind of world that it is hard to see—except on Augustinian grounds that (1) rejects—how God could create it.

Granted, it may be true at t that there will be a justifying good. But is the fact that there will be a good itself a good? Is it a good during the Peloponnesian War that Tolstoy will one day write Anna Karenina? The eternalist can say that during the Peloponnesian War it was true that Tolstoy's writing of Anna Karenina exists. But the presentist cannot say such a thing. Or, more weakly, maybe it is a good thing that a good will eventuate. But the present good of its being the case that a good will eventuate is a shadow of the value of the eventuating good itself. Theodicy is hard enough without one having to use shadows of values.

But perhaps what in general (and not just in the divine case) justifies permitting an evil isn't an actual good, but an likelihood of a good? But the relevant kind of likelihood is epistemic. And if presentism is true, then at t God knows for sure there is no justifying good.

If this line of thought is correct, then a presentist cannot make use of future-directed theodicies. And to the extent that (1) is plausible, a theist should not be a presentist.


Jonathan D. Jacobs said...

Why not say that what in general justifies permitting an evil isn't always an actual good, and isn't the likelihood of a good, but is rather the the present truth that there will be a good (together with whatever other truths are necessary---that the good is connected in the right sort of way to the evil, etc.)?

Then this problem reduces to the grounding problem for presentists in general, and so whatever solution the presentist has for that problem will apply here.

Alexander R Pruss said...

You could say that, but I think this would miss the fact that future goods are no more real, given presentism, than merely possible goods. (Facts about both are equally grounded in present states of affairs.)

Moreover, if one said this, then, apart from Augustinianism, one could say that God could permit things to be on balance bad (as long as this leads to enough future goods--but future goods aren't real on presentism, so that doesn't affect the balance).

Tap said...

Dr Pruss do you mind responding to the arguments presented here?

Patrick said...

Dr. Pruss

I don’t see how a theodicy can be anything else than future-directed. Any beneficial effect suffering may have must come about with some delay, be it a few milliseconds or a few hundred years.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It could perhaps be that a present evil is partly constitutive of a present good. Hard to find cases, though. My best take was something like the good of patience in suffering, which seems simultaneous with the suffering. But I think this simultaneity may break up: at t1, one is patient in respect of t0's suffering, since it takes some time for the mind to process things.

Alexander R Pruss said...


It depends on whether you think necessity or possibility is the more primitive notion. In my possible worlds book, I argue that possibility is the more primitive notion. If so, then if there were nothing, nothing would be possible.

Kensy said...

I think this argument would have certain unintended lemmas. For instance, any case of 'sacrifice' (i.e., giving up a present good or enduring a present discomfort in lieu of a future good) would be argued against here. Clearly no atheist (or non-presentist theist) would want to argue against asking people to undergo exercise today for longevity tomorrow or give up smoking etc.!

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yes, if this argument is correct, then presentism undermines other cases of future-directed concern.

The smoking case is nice. Suppose Sue likes smoking and that presently she doesn't care about future suffering. If presentism is correct, then the closest world in which Sue is now smoking is better, and better for Sue, than the closest world in which Sue is now not smoking. For in the world where Sue is smoking, she is receiving the pleasure of smoking, and in the world where Sue is not smoking, she isn't. Granted, in the world where Sue is smoking it is likely that she will receive lung cancer as well. But even if it were certain that she will receive lung cancer in that world, that future-tensed fact isn't a bad feature of that world. But it is absurd that in the case where it's certain that smoking will give her lung cancer it is better for her that she smoke. So presentism is false.

For the above argument, I assumed that presently Sue doesn't care about future suffering. If she does, then presumably she wants it to be false that she will have future suffering. And if it is true that she will have lung cancer, then her present desires do not match present reality, since present reality includes the fact that she will have lung cancer (supposing she will). And a mismatch between desire and reality may be a bad thing.

Mike Almeida said...

You'll have a justified evil if the present evil E entails a future good G such that (E & G) > (~E & ~G) (and perhaps some other conditions), just as the future benefits of exercise provide good reason for people to do the hard work in the present. I don't think these people are irrational for pointing to a forthcoming benefit as a reason to work now.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Suppose that a powerful being told you: "If you now endure some pain, it will become physically possible for you to receive a much greater good, but you will not in fact go for that much greater good."

This deal doesn't seem worthwhile. Your proposed gain is merely modal: you gain the mere physical possibility of a greater good, rather than an actual greater good.

Well, if presentism is true, then the future gain is merely modal. To say that you will gain a great good in the future is to say: WILL(you have a great good). And "WILL" is a modal operator if presentism is true.

In other words, the challenge for the presentist is why you should care any more about what happens in the future than about what happens in merely possible circumstances.

And if the argument in my post from today is right, then the parallel is even closer--future events are events in a possible world other than ours, if presentism is true.

Mike Almeida said...

Surely the promise of a possible good won't (in most cases) justify an actual evil. But what has that to do with the promise of what will occur? So, you say that WILL(G) if now evil E, and G is much greater than E. Fill in other details, most of which are tedious, though important, details. I say, givnen that G is forthcoming, it is rational for me to tolerate E. This is directly related to Parfit's discussion of temporal neutrality, it seems to me. I am temporally neutral, and I think it's rational to be so. If I know that something bad is (atemporally) expectable, then it does not matter to me when it happens. It is just as bad if it happens now or then. Similarly for goods. Of course, all other things equal.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's all fine stuff to say--for an eternalist. But temporal neutrality sits poorly with presentism. How can one be neutral between existent and non-existent goods?

James Bejon said...

I'm probably missing something important here (e.g. training in philosophy!). But I just don't see the force of this argument. It seems perfectly sufficient to me to justify some present evil E by saying that it will bring about some future good G. That G doesn't actually exist at the present moment seems irrelevant as long as it's true that G will exist at some point in time. Put another way, I don't see why, if I decided to embrace a B-theory of time, G would suddenly acquire any extra value or work any better as part of a theodicy.

Separately, modal goods can be pretty good, can't they? For instance, the ability to do other than I do actually do; being made such that it is impossible for me to sin; etc.

Here's another unrelated thought. Suppose God told me I was about to undergo some evil E but that it was justified on the basis of some past good G. I don't think I'd like the idea of this very much. On a non-presentist view, why not?

Alexander R Pruss said...


"Put another way, I don't see why, if I decided to embrace a B-theory of time, G would suddenly acquire any extra value or work any better as part of a theodicy."

Well, G would acquire reality. Surely the difference between a real and an unreal good is very important.

"Separately, modal goods can be pretty good, can't they? For instance, the ability to do other than I do actually do; being made such that it is impossible for me to sin; etc."

Good point. But I still think that there is a priority of the actual world for evaluation--the purely modalized goods do not have the same kind of value as this-worldly goods. Consider two people Jennifer and Sally who have the odd property that they can only exist in two worlds--the actual world, and some world w*. Jennifer is a wonderful person in the actual world. Sally is a terrible person in the actual world. But in w*, it's the other way around. Does it make Sally significantly better that she is a good person in w*? On the contrary, that she is a good person in w* may contribute to her responsibility for being a bad person in the actual world, and thus make her worse? In other words, while purely modal goods can be valuable (as in the case of the inability to sin), their actual-world contribution can also be nil or maybe even negative.

Overall, I thinking here that the critics of my argument aren't taking presentism seriously enough or else I am taking presentism too seriously. :-)

James Bejon said...

Alex: Well, G would acquire reality. Surely the difference between a real and an unreal good is very important.

Put like that, yes--because "unreal" sounds like "imaginary"! I suppose I just see the difference as equating to the difference between a "now" and a "not yet" good. So, while as things stand, the "now" is real and the "not yet" isn't; pretty soon, the situation will be different. To my mind, the move to make the future valuable by making it real isn't really necessary. The main point of Hebrews 11 is to show that, biblically speaking, faith is what makes these "not yets" into "nows"--thus, for instance, the patriarchs "died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar".