Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Eternal life and the crucible of character theodicy

Consider the crucible of character theodicy, that we are permitted by God to meet with great evils in order to form a character with virtues like courage and sacrificial love whose significant exercise requires significant evils.

I take it that it’s clear that forming such a character is worthwhile. But there are at least three problems with this theodicy:

  1. While such character formation is valuable, is it valuable enough to justify our suffering great evils? Wouldn’t it have been better if God just gave us the virtues directly, rather than having us pay a great price?

  2. Even if it is valuable enough to justify our suffering great evils, wouldn’t it be better if we suffered fewer or lesser ones?

  3. What about those who suffer and develop a vicious character?

I think these three problems can be overcome if we think about heavenly life as an infinite value multiplier.

Ad 1: There is clearly some additional value to having virtues that were formed through significantly free exercises of them rather than having had these virtues imposed on one. In heaven, on infinitely many days one has and enjoys the value of having virtues. But if one has formed these virtues through significantly free exercise, then on infinitely many days one also has and enjoys the additional value of having virtues that were thus formed. That’s an infinite additional increment. So as long as the disvalue of the sufferings in this life was finite—which surely it was—it’s worth it.

Ad 2: The greater the sufferings that one endured courageously and the greater the sacrifices one made in love, the more fully one owns the resulting courage and love. For in more extreme exercises of these virtues, one has a greater opportunity to abandon the path of virtue, and one’s presence on that path is more truly one’s own. And this deeper ownership over one’s virtue—bearing in mind, of course, that all one has is a participation of God, and that grace is deeply involved—adds an additional value of virtue-ownership throughout an infinite number of future days. Hence, it adds an infinite amount of value, which is surely worth it.

Ad 3: This is probably the most serious worry. Start with this thought. God is choosing whether to snatch Judas up to heaven in the first moment of his existence, imposing on him a perfectly virtuous character, or to give Judas the opportunity to freely develop and own that character. A toy model for this an extended utility calculation. On the first option, we have an expected utility of

  • V(eternal unowned virtue),

where V is value. On the second option, we have an expected utility of

  • pV(eternal owned virtue) + (1 − p)V(Judas chooses vice)

where p is the probability that Judas would come through the crucible well. (Of course, this line of thought requires rejecting theological compatibilism and Molinism.) Here, V(eternal unowned virtue) and V(eternal owned virtue) are each infinite and positive. Plausibly, V(Judas chooses vice) is negative. Is it infinite? That’s not clear. One might think that on orthodox Christian views of hell, it is both negative and infinite. But that need not be the case. It could be that the suffering and vice in hell actually decreases from day to day, so that the total amount of suffering and vice over eternity is actually finite (think of how 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + ... = 2).

If V(Judas chooses vice), the argument still isn’t over, but I will assume that V(Judas chooses vice) is finite—we could just build that into the theodicy. In that case, we can basically neglect V(Judas chooses vice)—when the other quantities are infinite, a finite subtraction is only going to be a tie-breaker.

So now the question is whether V(eternal unowned virtue) is bigger than or equal to pV(eternal owned virtue). And here it seems very reasonable simply to make a sceptical theist move. We don’t know what was Judas’ probability of coming through the crucible well. We don’t know exactly how V(eternal owned virtue) compares to V(eternal virtue). It could be that a day with owned value is three times as valuable as a day with unowned virtue. If so, then as long as p > 1/3, God’s giving Judas the opportunity for freely choosing virtue was worthwhile.

There are many objections, of course, that one can make. Here’s one that particularly comes to my mind: Wouldn’t it be better for God to first give people the opportunity to freely choose a virtuous character, but then if they refuse to do so, to impose that character on them? After all, at least some infants go to heaven after death. But they haven’t developed a virtuous character through the described kind of crucible. And so it seems that God imposes on them a virtuous character.

There are two things I’m inclined to say to this. First, there is a relevant difference between the case of imposing virtue on an infant and imposing virtue on someone who has chosen against virtue. Second, those who choose virtue own their virtue more fully if they had the possibility of not having that virtue at all.


Heath White said...

If this theodicy works, it would also justify God in allowing any proportion of humanity to end up in hell, so long as the proportion was not 100% and so long as the number of humans is finite. I don't know if you want to modus-ponens or modus-tollens that observation.

Ser said...

Do you endorse sceptical theism?

Alexander R Pruss said...


Yeah, but it would not justify God in creating humanity if humans had too large an individual probability of going to hell.



Heath White said...

Well, okay, the maximum individual probability of going to hell is set by the ratio of the values of owned to unowned virtue. So the more valuable you think the owned version is, the greater proportion of hell-bound individuals the theodicy will tolerate.

Christopher Michael said...

"Is it infinite? That’s not clear. One might think that on orthodox Christian views of hell, it is both negative and infinite. But that need not be the case. It could be that the suffering and vice in hell actually decreases from day to day, so that the total amount of suffering and vice over eternity is actually finite (think of how 1 + 1/2 + 1/4 + ... = 2)."

From the Catholic Encyclopedia: "Hell is a state of the greatest and most complete misfortune, as is evident from all that has been said. The damned have no joy whatever, and it were better for them if they had not been born (Matthew 26:24). Not long ago Mivart (The Nineteenth Century, Dec., 1892, Febr. and Apr., 1893) advocated the opinion that the pains of the damned would decrease with time and that in the end their lot would not be so extremely sad; that they would finally reach a certain kind of happiness and would prefer existence to annihilation; and although they would still continue to suffer a punishment symbolically described as a fire by the Bible, yet they would hate God no longer, and the most unfortunate among them be happier than many a pauper in this life. It is quite obvious that all this is opposed to Scripture and the teaching of the Church. The articles cited were condemned by the Congregation of the Index and the Holy Office on 14 and 19 July, 1893 (cf. "Civiltà Cattolica", I, 1893, 672)."

Alexander R Pruss said...

Presumably not every proposition by Mivart was condemned. For instance, he held that hell is forever, and that was surely not condemned. So the question is whether the specific claim of decrease was condemned. I can't track down a text of the condemnations.
An alternate way to get a finite amount is to suppose that the internal time of the damned slows down, so that while they suffer constantly in external time, in internal time there is only a finite duration. I don't like that version.

Alexander R Pruss said...

As far as I can track down, no specific proposition of Mivart was condemned by the Holy Office, but the articles as a whole were put on the Index. Mivart himself believed that they may have only been placed there for being inopportune. In any case, the proposition of gradual decrease of suffering in hell has not been clearly prohibited. So, what I said, namely "it's not clear" that the total disvalue is infinite, is true.