The Long View 2005-05-05: British Elections; Multiple Horrors; Theodicy

I have a pending book review on Tim Powers' Earthquake Weather where I will claim that Powers wrote a theodicy.


British Elections; Multiple Horrors; Theodicy

 

By the time you read this, we will probably already know whether a Labor government has been returned in the UK, and more specifically, whether Tony Blair is still prime minister. This is the last of the Five Elections, which tell us whether at least the opening phase of the Terror War can be successfully concluded. The elections in question were those in Australia, Afghanistan, the US, Iraq, and the UK. If any of them seriously miscarry, then the jihadi calculation that they could win an asymmetrical war of attrition directed at the morale of their opponents would have been substantially vindicated. A Labor defeat later today, for instance, would almost certainly encourage proposals to treat with Al Qaeda, and to create secure areas for jihadis in Iraq. That now seems unlikely, but at this writing it could still happen.

* * *

Something even less likely to happen is that the British electorate will return a substantial number of members to Parliament from The Raving Monster Looney Party. Their platform has many pledges that demonstrate a commendable willingness to think outside the box:

We will issue a 99p coin to save on change.

We pledge to reduce class sizes by making the pupils sit closer to one another...

Anyone caught breaking the law will be made to mend it.

Immigration: everyone wanting to come and live in the UK will be made welcome, so long as they are over the age of 85 and accompanied by both parents.

All foxes will be issued with sheep’s clothing.

All food shall be clearly labelled 'Recommended for Oral Use'.

I know this party is an old joke, but it still works for me.

* * *

To some people, blogging might seem to be no more than at excuse to write at length to no point or purpose, and with a fine disregard for accuracy. However, recent research by a Dr. Perelman at M.I.T. suggests that this activity might be perfect practice for getting into a good college, since SAT Essay Test Rewards Length and Ignores Errors:

An essay on the Civil War, given a perfect six, describes the nation being changed forever by the "firing of two shots at Fort Sumter in late 1862." (Actually, it was in early 1861, and, according to "Battle Cry of Freedom" by James M. McPherson, it was "33 hours of bombardment by 4,000 shot and shells.")...SAT graders are told to read an essay just once and spend two to three minutes per essay, and Dr. Perelman is now adept at rapid-fire SAT grading. This reporter held up a sample essay far enough away so it could not be read, and he was still able to guess the correct grade by its bulk and shape. "That's a 4," he said. "It looks like a 4."

Has anyone considered that the least corrupting admission system might be based on honest graft?

* * *

Speaking of the rewards of writing filler prose, the current Onion demonstrates the key to writing thrillers:

Unspeakable Horror Happens in Area Town
'Oh God, No!' Say Onlookers

MURPHY, ID. Indescribable tragedy struck the quiet foothill town of Murphy Monday, leaving authorities and citizens dumbstruck by the nameless horror that descended on their community.

"Oh God," said Wilma Freas, standing at the edge of Main Street overlooking the lumberyard. "Those poor people!"

Added Freas: "And the children..."

Just go on like that for 80-thousand words and you'll be fine. Spend as little time as possible describing the monster; it's going to look like a guy in a rubber suit anyway.

* * *

Real-life horrors, in contrast, must be described. When they involve injury to large numbers of innocent people, they raise questions of theodicy, of how a good God could permit suffering in the world. The Times of Malta recently discussed an updated version of one of the Scholastic arguments:

The tsunami was caused by an underwater earthquake. Science suggests, however, that if humans are to exist, earthquakes are a necessary evil. If the earth were a geologically dead planet with no tectonic activity such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, aeons of erosion would long ago have made it a dully flat and inhospitable place, in all likelihood completely covered with water and we certainly would not be around.

Earthquakes, therefore, appear to be a good example of what Aquinas meant when he said, in a passage cited by Mgr Gauci, that "God can never want moral evil, but, accidentally, he can want physical evil. This last because of some good tied up to that evil" - in this case, the existence of human beings.

What we are talking about here, of course, are the Anthropic Coincidences. Any universe that has sunlight in it is also going to have the possibility of hydrogen bombs. The interesting thing is that only a very narrow range of physical constants will produce any highly structured universe at all. In other words, any world that contains biology is also going to contain danger; they are both generated by the same numbers.

So why couldn't God make a universe in which this linkage did not apply? Because a perfect physical creation would be a contradiction: physical things are by definition vulnerable in some respects. Why could not God create a contradiction? Because contradictory things lack the power to exist.

John Leslie's argument is perhaps a little neater, and it does not leave you struggling with fine points of modal and extentional logic. He pointed out that any human generation that reproduces itself makes the same decision that God made when He created the human race: people know that some of their descendants are going to be miserable some of the time.

Tough, but fair.

* * *

Here's a coincidence for you: I was reading Ian McEwan's novel, Saturday, and came to a place where the protagonist wonders, amidst his many other meditations, whether it would be possible to judge Prime Minister Blair's veracity about WMDs in Iraq by studying the images of the Prime Minister's face in the multiple television screens in a shop window. The name Paul Ekman comes up, in connection with Ekman's research into facial expression and cognition. The coincidence is that I had never heard of this research, or of the name Ekman, until a few days ago, when I saw both mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell's book, Blink, a review of which I have here.

Both these books were given to me by the same people, but I doubt that face-research is something they were trying to draw my attention to. In this conjunction, I do not see a synchronous event. When the same fishy ideas turn up in randomly selected novels and non-fiction, however, that is always a bad sign: we could be in for a deluge of hype about face-reading.

Again, we can only ask: could a good God permit such things?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

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