Saturday, December 29, 2007

Music and the problem of evil

Suppose I have superhuman hearing. While you are listening to Beethoven's Ninth, I hear, with great precision, every single sound wave impacting each of my eardrums. But I do not actually assemble them into a coherent piece of music.[note 1] As far as aesthetic appreciation goes, I might as well be looking at a CD under a scanning electron microscope.

It is quite easy to see all the physical details of a work of art without seeing the work as a whole, which work gives meaning to the parts. The details may look nothing like the whole. And suppose now that we did not even see all the details, first, because our perceptual processes already processed the data in some lossy way, perhaps a way irrelevant to the aesthetic qualities (think of someone who, whenever a piece of music came into his ears, received instead a visual representation of a Fourier transform of a distorted version of the sound), and, second, because we did not perceive the whole. Then our judgment as to the aesthetic qualities of the whole, as to the fittingness of parts, would be of very dubious value.

Now it is plausible that a universe created by God is very much like a work of art. A work of art we see only a portion of and in a way that involves perceptual pre-processing of a sort that may lose many significant aspects of the axiological properties of the work.

If that is how we saw things, then we would find a portion of the "sceptical theism" position quite plausible: we would find it quite plausible that various local evils we see fit into global patterns that give them a very different significance from what we thought. I am not saying the local evils disappear, that they are not evil. But the meaning is very different. We see this in music, in literature, in painting.

[A]ll people are under control in their own spheres; but to everyone it seems as if there is no control over them. As for you, you only have to bother about what you want to be, because whatever and however you want to be, the craftsman knows where to put you. Consider a painter. Various colors are set before him, and he knows where to put each color. The sinner, of course, wanted to be the color black; does that mean the craftsman is not in control, and doesn't know where to put him? How many things he can do, in full control, with the color black! How many detailed embellishments the painter can make! He paints the hair with it, paints the eyebrows. To paint the forehead he only uses white. - St. Augustine, Sermon 125

And just as there may be aesthetic values we are unaware of, there may be moral values we are unaware of.

All this points towards a version of sceptical theism. But I think we should not go too far in that direction. For unlike a piece of music, the work of art that the universe is is executed not out of soundwaves that have little individual worth, the universe is a work that incorporates persons--beings in the image and likeness of God. This makes the divine work much more gloriously impressive especially if God doesn't determine our free actions, but it also means that there is real, intrinsic meaning in the local situations we find, in the pains, joys, sufferings and ecstasies of life. While the meaning of these can be transformed, evils will still be evils. The problem of evil is not solved in this way, but it is, I think, mitigated significantly.

Moreover, thinking in this way solves a problem that plagues standard sceptical theist solutions, namely that they undercut design arguments for the existence of God. For although we might be unable to perceive the significance of the whole, we might perceive significance in the part, and the beauty of a figure in a painting, a chapter in a novel or musical movement can be sufficient to establish something about the talent of the artist.

I explore some of these themes in this piece I once presented at a conference, but the online version is sadly bereft of its illustrations in part for copyright reasons.

1 comment:

Enigman said...

I like the way that thinking properly about anything will inevitably introduce one to the bigger, more philosophical picture, will radically transform one's view of that thing. And certainly, if there is a God then there will be mitigating circumstances; which is no worse than the standard account of mind (if there are ultimately only arrangements of matter then mental properties supervene on them). And I agree that a theodicy needs more than that, just as the materialists are failing to account for our minds. (Also I think that SciFi is the best medium for philosophical communication, and so I just liked this post alot:)