He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Love it to Death: The Love of Our Life

This year I did something that I have never done before; I attended both Roman Catholic and Antiochian Orthodox liturgies for Easter or Pascha.  Because on the Gregorian and Julian calendars they were a week apart, I was able to experience them in sufficient proximity to one another that I was able to do some effective comparison.  I also had enough time between them to consider their uniqueness.

In both cases I attended the vigil service, and as a result I was out until after 2:00 am and did not sleep until 3:00 in the morning.  One of the similarities I noticed at the liturgies is that both viscerally evoked the image of an empty tomb.  In the case of the Roman Catholic Easter Vigil Mass, the tabernacle was empty and standing open when I arrived, a symbol that Christ had risen from the tomb.  In the case of the Antiochian Orthodox Divine Liturgy, the iconostasis was the symbol of the tomb, completely closed off at the start of the service, then opened up after the candlelight procession and readings.

Whereas the the candlelight procession, readings, and the Exultet took place after the symbolism of the empty tomb in the Roman Catholic church, the procession and readings happened before the tomb was shown to be empty in the Antiochian Orthodox church.  This made sense when we read the Gospel reading about the empty tomb and I saw the priest knocking on the doors to the church (in traditional Syrian practice) to go back in as if he were leaving the tomb to enter Heaven.  And the journey of Christ does end in Heaven, but only by way of Hell and after 40 days on earth appearing to the Apostles and others.

Just as Christ went through Hell to release the righteous dead and arose to new, glorified life, so too are we invited to arise to a new glorified life, bringing with us those who were once dead, those who had been wrapped in the comforting cocoon of sin just as we were imprisoned by our attachment to our fleshly desires.  Like Christ, we are called to ascend to Heaven with those we love, drawing them out of the tomb by our love into the eternal love of the Father.

Christ showed us by his life, death, and resurrection that it is a life and death in service to others which leads to a new life which transcends death.  He showed us that it is in pouring out our lives for others that we are emptied of our selfishness so that we can be filled with divine love.  He showed us that it is in being broken for the sake of the love of others that we can be re-formed so that our love for others is perfected and purified, made whole by participation in the divine life of love.

Just as Christ is the Bread from Heaven that was broken for us, so too are we bread which is broken for those we love, our hearts rending for others and our deepest fleshly desires shattered for the fulfillment of what is good for our beloved.  Just as Christ poured out the blood and water of His body for us on the cross, so too our blood and tears are poured out so that we might do what is good for those we love, our eyes weeping with our beloved as they weep and our blood shed while working to ensure that they can live on.  Just as Christ humbled Himself in service to us in life, so too we humble ourselves in service to those who can never repay us, asking only that they follow our example of loving service to others so that we might be joined in the eternal divine life of love.

Christ who is Love showed us how to live a life saturated with love, a Life so bright with the joy and enveloped in the peace which springs from love that it cannot help but be seen as the best and boldest Way, a self-evident Truth to those who witness this new Life.  Christ showed us how to live the Life of love by coming to us in this life as Love incarnate, life overflowing into a new and more glorious life beyond the tomb and beyond the pits of Hades. Christ showed us how to love to death all that prevents us from participating fully in the new Life, a love unto death which he shows to us as an invitation to be adopted into the household of Love by the Father who is eternal Life.

Christ thus became the Love of our life, and the pure Life of our love.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Benefit of Doubt: The Question of Science

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to articulate two popular views of science and ask which might make more sense.  I also began to address the two major threads of thought about science which are present among scientists and philosophers and science.

These threads of thought are answers to the question, "What is science?"  This question has multiple possible answers existing along a complicated spectrum, unsurprisingly.  The first is that which I previously mentioned was articulated by Neil Tyson, along with many other scientists and philosophers of science.

1.  Scientific realism is the view being put forth here, specifically that whatever is described by contemporary scientific theories is real, that they constitute a correct ontology (or metaphysical scheme).  Underlying this view is often the idea that the terms used in scientific theories genuinely refer to something that exists and/or that those terms correctly describe the things that exist.  The usual implication of this view is that scientific theories are genuine instances of knowledge about our world.  

These are views that will perhaps make some intuitive sense for the average person who holds to one of the popular views of science.  Of course we know that quarks and gravity are real, right?  Keep in mind that knowledge means something different in philosophy than it does in common parlance; knowledge is a much higher standard for the philosopher than for the average person.  Depending on the philosopher, knowledge might entail infallibility, which would require at least localized omniscience with regard to phenomena.  Most scientific realists in the philosophy of science community don't go quite so far as to expect the absolute certainty of infallible views, instead taking the fallibilist position that knowledge does not require absolute certainty, but instead the best available evidence.

2.  Scientific instrumentalism is the opposing view, specifically that scientific theories are instruments for predicting the events we can observe and/or a conceptual framework we use to systematize the events we observe into a coherent narrative.  Underlying this view is often the idea that the terms used in scientific theories do not genuinely refer to something that exists, that scientific theories do not constitute a correct ontology (or metaphysical scheme).  But not always; there are instrumentalists who concede that scientific theories are ontologically and semantically correct, but are doubtful that they are genuine instances of knowledge about the world.

The first part of this view will perhaps make some intuitive sense for the average person, but the latter two parts probably won't.  The idea that the term "quark" does not refer to some thing out there in reality, but is instead a conceptual tool we use for systematizing and communicating a body of observations about certain kinds of sub-atomic physical interactions, is not an idea that's likely to have popular appeal.  But in the end, how different is the instrumentalist position from the position of the scientific realist who is also a fallibilist?  Both reject the idea that scientific theories provide us with absolute certainty about what things exist.  Both generally accept the idea that scientific theories are highly useful and valuable to our technological progress.

They do disagree on some of the philosophical implications of scientific theory, and in particular the instrumentalist is more doubtful than the realist about the epistemic status of scientific theories.  Is it more scientific or more rational for the instrumentalist to retain these doubts?  What is the benefit of doubting that science makes correct ontological claims, or that it can in principle do so?  What is the benefit of doubting that scientific theories meet the criteria for knowledge?

The difference between the realist and the instrumentalist is that the former sees the limits of science as being farther out than the latter; they differ not on the subject of whether or not scientific theory is useful or true, but rather on the subject of the extent to which scientific theories are true, the topic for the next piece in this series.

The Gospel of Science - The Question of Science - The Limits of Science

Note: The above is a picture of the top of one of my science fair trophies.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Destroyer of Karma

Please listen to the embedded podcast version of this post or read the written version below.

The concept of karma as an element of Buddhist thought is bandied about quite a bit in the West among the average citizen, and is usually accompanied by a lack of understanding as to what the Buddha taught about karma.  Accordingly, I would like to examine some of the basics of the Buddha's teaching on karma and try to explain them for the contemporary Western reader.

For the Buddha, karma is an uncontroversial law of nature, just as inevitable and apparent to those who study nature deeply as the law of gravity is for contemporary physics.  For the average Westerner who has heard in passing of the concept of karma, this inevitability is framed in terms of "good karma" and "bad karma", terms which bear a great deal of resemblance to the proverb, "What goes around comes around."

This sort of karma is understood to be a sort of cosmic payback system, a cause-effect relationship in which doing bad things results in bad things happening to you in this life, and doing good things results in good things happening to you in this life.  It can be imagined as a sort of Newtonian law of motion applied to the moral acts of individuals, that for each action there is a corresponding reaction in the human social sphere.  Under this view of karma, being kind and agreeable to others results in others being kind and agreeable to you, so just be kind and agreeable already.

The Buddha does not dispute that our moral acts have an impact in this life, and makes a strong case that acts of kindness are an important part of living this life well, specifically that it leads to our happiness in this life as I've demonstrated before.  On the other hand, the Buddha's understanding of karma extends far beyond this life, and his primary concern is to help us reach the other shore, as I've also documented previously.

He conveys to us the importance of reaching the other shore in visceral and disturbing terms.  He helps us to understand why we must leave the River of Sorrow for the other shore in his Stream of Blood discourse with the monks of the Sangha.

"Monks, this samsara is without discoverable beginning.  A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on, hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.  What do you think, monks, which is more: the stream of blood that you have shed when you were beheaded as you roamed and wandered through this long course--this or the water in the four great oceans?"

"As we understand the dhamma taught by the Blessed One, venerable sir, the stream of blood that we have shed when we were beheaded as we roamed and wandered through this long course--this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans."

"Good, good, monks!  It is good that you understand the Dhamma taught by me in such a way.  The stream of blood that you have shed as you roamed and wandered through this long course--this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans.  For a long time, monks, you have been cows, and when as cows you were beheaded, the stream of blood that you have shed is greater than the waters in the four great oceans.  For a long time you have been buffalo, sheep, goats, deer, chickens, and pigs.... For a long time you have been arrested as burglars, highwaymen, and adulterers, and when you were beheaded the stream of blood that you shed is greater than the water in the four great oceans."

The Buddha wants us to understand that the problem is much more serious than our sufferings in this one life, that we cannot stop at merely being kind and agreeable to others in this life.  For the Buddha, there are not two kinds of karma, divided into "good" and "bad" categories so easy to understand for those who like simple binary distinctions.  The Buddha explains in the Pali canon that the karma we build up in the course of our lives can be of four kinds: dark karma, bright karma, dark and bright karma, and karma that is neither bright nor dark.

 "And what, monks, is dark kamma with dark results?  Here, monks, someone generates an afflictive volitional formation of body, speech, or mind.  Having done so, he is reborn in an afflictive world. When he is reborn in an afflictive world, afflictive contacts touch him.  Being touched by afflictive contacts, he experiences an afflictive feeling, extremely painful, as for example the beings in hell experience.  This is called dark kamma with dark results.

And what, monks, is bright kamma with bright results?  Here, monks, someone generates a non-afflictive volitional formation of body, speech, or mind.  Having done so, he is reborn in a non-afflictive world.  When he is reborn in a non-afflictive world, non-afflictive contacts touch him.  Being touched by non-afflictive contacts, he experiences a non-afflictive feeling, extremely pleasant, as for example the devas of refulgent glory experience.  This is called bright kamma with bright results."

The Buddha mentions in his taxonomy of karma that these forms of karma are the result of volitional acts, that our karma arises from our choices rather than arising from our circumstances.  Like the average Westerner, he sees karma as a product of our moral decision-making, but unlike the average Westerner, he sees that karma does not simply apply to this life.  In the Buddha's view, our choices shape who we are in this life, and who we are in this life determines our circumstances in the next life by bringing about circumstances that match how we treated ourselves and others.

Thus if our lives are an affliction to ourselves and others as a result of our choices, we are reborn into a world which matches the affliction we brought to ourselves and others.  Just as in the Christian cosmology hell is the natural result of a choice to separate one's self from God's love and heaven is the natural result of uniting one's self with God's love, so too in the Buddhist cosmology the afflictive, torturous worlds known as narakas are the natural result of our being an affliction to others, and the pleasant heavenly planes of the devas of refulgent glory and Brahma are the natural result of our not being an affliction to others.

And just as in certain forms of Christianity there are states in between Hell and Heaven such as Purgatory or Limbo, so too in Budddhism are there states in between the deepest, most torturous naraka and the highest heavenly plane.

"And what, monks, is dark and bright kamma with dark and bright results?  Here, monks, someone generates both an afflictive volitional formation of body, speech, or mind and a non-afflictive volitional formation of body, speech, or mind.  Having done so, he is reborn in a world that is both afflictive and non-afflictive.  When he is reborn in such a world, both afflictive and non-afflictive contacts touch him.  Being touched by such contacts, he experiences both an afflictive feeling and a non-afflictive feeling, a mixture and conglomeration of pleasure and pain, as for example human beings and some devas and some beings in the lower world experience.  This is called dark and bright kamma with dark and bright results."

The Buddha saw a broad range of worlds into which we move based on our choices in each life, a set of worlds which seem to the Western mind to exist along a moral spectrum, a spectrum that spans from the deepest suffering in the most terrifying naraka to a completely pleasant experience on the highest heavenly plane.  And somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, the world we experience as human beings exposes us to a bit of both.

Understandably, our first inclination upon accepting the truth of the Buddha's vision is to strive for bright karma so that we can reach the highest heavenly plane.  But one more type of karma remains for us to understand, and it's the most important one, the karma which liberates us from the cycle of death and rebirth.

"And what, monks, is kamma that is neither dark nor bright, with neither dark nor bright results, which leads to the destruction of kamma?  The volition to abandon this dark kamma with dark results, and to abandon the bright kamma with bright results, and to abandon the dark and bright kamma with the dark and bright results -- this is called the kamma that is neither dark nor bright, with neither dark nor bright results, which leads to the destruction of kamma."

The Buddha, much like the Western mystics of the Christian, Islamic, and Baha'i traditions, calls us to something beyond a life of endless pleasure.  He invites us to something even greater, an existence which transcends mere existence and ends our vision of the world that is obsessively focused on our suffering or the lack thereof.

"Monks, whatever grounds there are for making merit productive of a future birth, all these do not equal a sixteenth part of the liberation of mind by loving-kindness.  The liberation of mind by loving-kindness shines forth, bright and brilliant.  ... And just as in the night, at the moment of dawn, the morning star shines forth, bright and brilliant, even so, whatever grounds there are for making merit productive of a future birth, all these do not equal a sixteenth part of the liberation of mind by loving-kindness.  The liberation of mind by loving-kindness surpasses them and shines forth, bright and brilliant."

The Buddha sees the path to liberation of our minds from our obsession with suffering or the lack thereof as starting very simply.

The Buddha said to Anathapindika: "In the past, householder, there was a Brahmin named Velama.  He gave such a great alms offering as this: 84,000 bowls of gold filled with silver; 84,000 bowls of silver filled with gold; 84,000 bronze bowls filled with bullion; 84,000 elephants, chariots, milch cows, maidens, and couches, many millions of fine cloths, and indescribable amounts of food, drink, ointment, and bedding.  As great as was the alms offering that Velama gave, it would be even more fruitful if one were to feed even a single person possessed of right view.  As great as the Brahmin Velama's alms offering was, and though one would feed a hundred persons possessed of right view, it would be even more fruitful if one would feed a single once-returner....it would be even more fruitful if, with a trusting mind, one would go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, and would undertake the five precepts: abstaining from the destruction of life, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from the use of intoxicants.  As great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful if one would develop a mind of loving-kindness even for the time it takes to pull a cow's udder.  And as great as all this might be, it would be even more fruitful still if one would develop the perception of impermanence just for the time it takes to snap one's fingers."

For the Buddha, it is very good to give generously to others who are still unaware of the truth about the world, it is better to give generously to those who are aware of the truth about the world so that they can be supported on their way to leaving behind the cycle of death and rebirth, and it is best of all to begin the liberation of our own consciousness from our obsession with pleasure and pain.

This is how we begin to destroy the dark and bright karma that leads to our continued participation in the cycle of death and rebirth.  In the end, the Buddha's teaching on karma is given to us because we need to understand karma so that we can let it go.

By Stephen Shephard - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1130661

Monday, May 11, 2015

Love it to Death: The Gospel of Doubt

I attended the Resurrection service at the local Orthodox church this year, and after the service I was talking to the Deacon, who kindly invited me to Vespers the next morning.  He also asked if I would be willing to help read the Gospel passage for the morning in a language other than English, because their tradition is to read the Gospel in as many languages as are used by members of their community.  I was delighted to find that there were Latin and Spanish translations of the Gospel passage available for me to use, and agreed to proclaim it in those languages while others did so in Arabic, French, and Romanian.

I took one of their missals home so that I could practice proclaiming those passages, primarily to make sure that I got the pacing and emphases right the next morning.  When we reached the point in the Vespers when it was my turn to proclaim the Gospel passage in Spanish and then in Latin, I launched into it with a measured pace and careful pronunciation as I had practiced it.  Perhaps because I had practiced it and was now able to concentrate on the content of the reading itself, it struck me in a way that it had not the night before.

A reading from the Gospel of John:
On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus[a]), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I was overcome with emotion as I read of Thomas' doubts and then of his encounter with Jesus that erased all doubt.  I realized at that moment that I was a proverbial Doubting Thomas, that I had been given the immense, profound, and completely undeserved gift of encountering Christ directly and yet had persisted in my doubts that He was the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

I am the product of two parents who are trained scientists, and I have a strong background in philosophy; doubt is as much of a habit for me as breathing. I am a compulsive questioner of what others find to be obvious, which is why I tend to be willing to ask hard questions about topics that seem settled.

Perhaps this is why I have long sympathized with my atheist brothers and sisters more so than most of my fellow Christians.  I have explained my struggle with accepting the idea of the Christian conception of God, suggested to my fellow Christians that we need to treat atheists well, and repeatedly attempted to engage with claims made by atheists like Nietzsche, Penn Jillette, and Sam Harris in a thoughtful rather than a dismissive and accusatory way.  I have argued decisively that atheism is not and cannot be understood coherently as a religion.  I have tried to show that associating all atheists with Satan-worship makes no sense.

Unsurprisingly, I've been accused of being a part of some sort of atheist brotherhood before because I tend to be willing to stick up for atheists, and Christians who find my skeptical bent suspicious are inclined to think me a heretic.  But my friendly rapport with many atheists isn't a matter of agreeing with them; it's a matter of understanding their doubts because I have shared them.  And most of us have doubts at times, particularly when we are struggling deeply in our lives.

We should all understand to some extent what it's like to be a Doubting Thomas.  If the Apostle Thomas who ate and drank and traveled with Jesus had trouble believing that He was who He said He is, then how can we possibly fail to understand how someone who has not been at the Last Supper would be unable to believe without a doubt that Christ is risen?

Nothing less than the visceral encounter with Christ will erase all our doubts, and even then some of us are like Thomas, persisting in our doubts until we see Him as the Risen Lord physically present to us.  Jesus is ready and willing to let Thomas feel the wounds in his hands and side, reaching out in love to the one who has doubts so that he might overcome them in the light of experience.  This is the example we must follow with our brothers and sisters who have doubts; we are called to let them see our wounds and our own doubts, showing them through our experience how they can be overcome.

We are called to be Christ's hands, to display the wounds aggravated by our doubts so that others know that they are not alone in their doubts, that their journey is one we share.  Just as we love to death our doubts about the trustworthiness of our brothers and sisters by developing loving relationships with them, so too we love to death our doubts about the trustworthiness of Christ's promises and teachings by developing a loving relationship with Him, showing by our lives that love can overcome any doubt, even the doubts of someone who has encountered Christ and doubts Him still, even the doubts of the Doubting Thomas so many of us have been at some point in our lives.

By Unknown - This image is available from the National Library of Wales You can view this image in its original context on the NLW Catalogue, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44920993

Note: This is called the Incredulity of Thomas, and it shows Thomas placing his hand in Christ's side, as do many of the works of art based on the events described in the New Testament.  The portion of the Gospel of John in which this event is related is the source of the phrase "doubting Thomas" in common parlance.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Benefit of Doubt: The Gospel of Science

Last night, I was listening to a bartender poke fun at how scientists so often don't seem to have a very certain grasp on some basic aspects of reality, as if they were somehow not living up to the promise of science.  By contrast, I suggested that it was a good thing for scientists to not be entirely certain, that they had a duty to entertain uncertainty about their conclusions in order to utilize scientific methodology well.

I realized that these two responses to the uncertainty of science were reflective of a larger divide in human society with regard to what the scientific project should be accomplishing, and also reflective of a smaller divide among scientists and philosophers of science with regard to what scientific theories accomplish.

Theory formation is a fascinating subject which I had the great fortune of studying in college during a Philosophy of Science course.  It's a fascinating subject because it functions at the boundary between science and philosophy; it provides the bridge by which we can travel from the raw data observed by our instruments and observations made by our perceptual mechanisms toward new experiments and general conclusions about our world.

There seem to be two popular conceptions of the telos of science:

1.  Scientific inquiry should provide us with certain knowledge about the world, and to the extent that it does not, we should make an effort to bring science up to that standard.
2.  Scientific inquiry should not (and perhaps cannot) provide us with certain knowledge about the world; it should always remain uncertain of its conclusions so that we can remain open to learning more.

Unsurprisingly, those who agree with the first proposition almost invariably view scientific theories and explanations as authoritative narratives about reality.  They are (usually without being aware of it) known as scientific realists for those of us versed in the philosophy of science.  They take the view that science provides us with correct ontological beliefs, beliefs about the true nature of things, supplanting the tired and worn field of metaphysics, quietly euthanizing the philosophical discipline so that we no longer have to endure its misery.

Also unsurprisingly, many scientists and philosophers who are at least in part professional skeptics tend to agree with the second proposition.  I think that Neil Tyson explains it fairly well:

"We should not be ashamed of not having answers to all questions yet...I'm perfectly happy staring somebody in the face saying, "I don't know yet, and we've got top people working on it." The moment you feel compelled to provide an answer, then you're doing the same thing that the religious community does: providing answers to every possible question."

Center for Inquiry, New York Academy of Sciences, July 21, 2009

While I think that he's ignoring the evidence of mystery religions in the latter part of his comment, I also think that his point is sound nonetheless. It is simply not necessary to answer every question with a certain response rather than an admission that we don't know.

I tend to think that the benefits of scientific inquiry are at least in part the benefit of doubt, the systematic uncertainty that allows us to continue to learning and growing to the extent that we can do so with our tiny, under-powered hominid brains.  I think that treating science as a source of certainty, no matter how tempting it might become because of its predictive power in many domains, threatens to terminate the highly valuable benefits which doubt has brought to scientific inquiry.

Is the good news about scientific theory that it is objectively true regardless of what anyone believes (as Neil Tyson has also claimed)?  Is the good news about scientific theory that it can answer all of our questions?  Or is the good news that we are not certain whether current scientific theory is true or not, that scientific inquiry operates under the assumption that we have more to learn?  Can science, in principle or in practice, actually answer ontological questions, or must it leave ontological questions open?

These questions start to uncover the smaller divide among scientists and philosophers of science with regard to the nature of science, a topic for the next piece in this series.

Note: The above is a picture of the top of one of my science fair trophies.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fair Questions: Why is it hard for us to believe that a loving God exists?

There have been plenty of people throughout the ages who have doubted the existence of whatever deities their culture exposed them to.  Atheistic philosophical schools have arisen in ancient India and ancient Greece.  They have also been present more recently in European and Asian history, and have gained a certain popularity today in the U.S. among members of my generation, though not as strongly as elsewhere.

Those of us who value rationality, empirical methodology, and have access to an unprecedented amount of information about the world understandably want to find a way to select the most true beliefs from the vast ocean of hoaxes, honest mistakes, oversimplifications, and coherent worldviews that are simply at odds with evidence we have about the world.

While the most pointed critiques atheists have brought against various theistic claims have generally been variations on the Problem of Evil which have been occasionally articulated in precise rational terms, I have previously suggested that the true problem is not a rational one, but rather an emotional one.  I have already explained why I think that the Problem of Evil does not hold up as a rational argument, but I think it would be useful to look at the true reason we find it so difficult to believe in a loving God, admittedly because it is something I've struggled with myself.

If you engage in lots of dialogue with intelligent and honest atheists, a pattern becomes evident.  And lest the theists who like to jauntily go after atheists for their irrationality start getting the impression that they are better than the atheists, this pattern very much applies to theists as well.  Most atheists in the U.S. today did not start out as atheists.  They were generally raised in religious homes to one degree or another (though that might change over the next few decades) and were theists at some point.  The kind of doubts that lead theists to become atheists are well known among theists.  Those doubts of many theists are why we have the field of theodicy; atheists didn't create theodicy, but rather someone who was trying to retain their Christian worldview.

There are a variety of answers to the Problem of Evil, such as the invocation of free will, appeals to the eternal justice of the afterlife, etc.  These arguments are often interconnected and can only resolve the problem as an integrated worldview, which is why people who want a simple, singular rational argument never find it very compelling.  I know that because I was one of those people.  In my early twenties, I tried to find a solution to the Problem of Evil as logically formulated and could not find one that did not involve rejecting the omnipotence, omnipresence, or omnibenevolence of God as formulated by many Christian theologians.  At the time, I decided to forgo belief in God's omnipotence as my solution to the Problem of Evil.  Not very creative, I know.

It was very tempting to me to abandon belief in God entirely.  Removing belief in God seemed to reduce the philosophical work I had to do considerably.  It seemed to me that it made for a much simpler explanation of the world and human experience to just believe in scientific narratives.  It also seemed to me that it reduced my emotional workload; I no longer needed to be anguished over why a loving God would let so many people suffer so tragically and die in agony in addition to the anguish of normal human empathy in those cases.

I ultimately decided that I couldn't honestly abandon belief in God because of the simplicity of a worldview without God.  While it's true that in scientific methodology, more parsimonious explanations are considered better, it is not the case that the simpler explanation is necessarily more true.  Berkeley's idealism is probably the simplest explanation one could provide for our experience of the world, but most people who consider themselves evidence-based thinkers reject it.  I also spent a lot of time considering whether or not there was sufficient evidence to believe in any deities, but that is a discussion that warrants its own space, so I'll set it aside for now.

Later in life, as I have often done, I returned to one of the thorny philosophical problems I had faced before and decided that I would examine my assumptions and work through it again to see if my answer might change.  I had noticed a pattern in my previous thoughts on the subject which also seemed quite common to many people in my generation who were questioning their belief in God or had already rejected it.  We were asking a lot of the same and similar questions, such as, "Why would a loving God allow my family member to get cancer and die so young?"  "Why would a loving God allow me to experience such deep suffering?"  "Why would a loving God allow so much death and destruction?"  "Why would a loving God allow me to not go to Heaven?"

Now that I was older, I had some serious questions about my assumptions in asking those questions because life experience had taught me a few things despite my best efforts to not learn from it.  What is love?  What does it mean to be loving?  Is it true that when we love someone, we will not allow them to endure any suffering which is in our power to prevent?  Is it true that we will allow them to do anything they want without enacting consequences for their behavior?  Is it true that we will allow them into our homes even when they have chosen to do everything that indicates that they would rather not live with us?

I realized at this point that my articulation of the Problem of Evil was misleading.  I wasn't describing the Problem of Evil, but rather the Problem of Love.  It wasn't so much that I was unable to reconcile the existence of evil with God's existence, but rather that I could not reconcile the existence of suffering and consequences I didn't like with a loving God.

The Problem of Love

While it is often true that folks who want to make a rational case against the existence of a loving God are actually making an emotional case, I do think that we can frame it in a simplified logical form similar to what has been done with the Problem of Evil.  So what is the Problem of Love?

0.  God exists
1.  Love exists
2.  Love entails allowing the beloved to act in whatever way they deem fit without enacting consequences against their wishes
3.  Love entails preventing the beloved from all suffering in the lover's power to prevent
4.  Love entails ending the suffering of the beloved when it is already happening
5.  God has the power and knowledge to prevent or end the suffering of all by not creating a world with suffering
6.  God has enacted consequences for our actions (e.g. Hell) against our wishes
7.  God has created a world in which there is suffering
8.  God has chosen not to end the suffering of all
9.  God does not love us

Some important caveats to note are that the Problem of Love I have articulated here is simplified, and I could have made it much more complex to take into account more evidence without changing the conclusion.  Also that it only applies to a specific range of theistic concepts, and would not work as an argument against most polytheistic, animistic, pantheistic, or maltheistic views (in fact it might support a maltheistic view to a limited extent given certain philosophical assumptions).

There are some implications we could draw from the Problem of Love in light of its assumptions.

1.  God exists, but is not a loving God.  Maybe deism is a good alternative here.
2.  God exists, but God is a hateful, evil being.  So maltheism seems to be the answer on this view.

We could also conclude that the assumptions about God are incorrect, which seems to be what many people have done throughout history, though it's not popular today in the U.S.

3.  God does not have the knowledge to prevent or end suffering.
4.  God does not have the power to prevent or end suffering.

We could alternatively conclude that our assumptions about love are incorrect, which is a much less popular option.

5.  Love does not entail that we end the suffering of those we love.
6.  Love does not entail that we prevent all suffering to the extent that it is in our power.
7.  Love does not entail that we do not enact consequences against the wishes of those we love.

We could even go so far as to deny the fundamental assumptions as a means of resolving the problem if none of the other solutions are workable.

8.  Love does not exist.
9.  God does not exist.

Most people who were raised in a Christian household and like Christian moral ideals, even if only vaguely, tend not to want to go for options 1 and 2.  Understandably, we really want to believe that if there is a God, then such a God would agree with our highest moral intuitions.  And we would also like to think that any God that exists would be all-powerful and all-knowing, so 3 and 4 are not particularly appealing, though I did bite the bullet and choose 4 at one point in my life.

I also jumped all the way to option 9 as a possible solution, though it ended up not working for me for other reasons.  Many of my friends who happen to be atheists have understandably taken this option.  I also seriously considered the possibility that option 8 was correct, but I would guess that most people would not find it appealing because they are viscerally convinced that love exists and it's deeply uncomfortable to believe that our experience of life might be so completely misleading as to delude us into believing in love when it doesn't exist.   The same is probably true for option 9.

Options 5, 6, and 7 are also deeply uncomfortable.  In part, this is because we really don't like the implication that it might be loving for someone to allow us to suffer.  When our parents let us make mistakes and suffer the consequences, is that loving?   When our parents allowed us to be born rather than having an abortion, thereby letting us enter a world in which we would experience deep suffering by simply growing to adulthood (those teenage years are awful, right?), was that loving?  Is it possible that it would have been the loving thing to do to prevent our existence?  When our parents punished us for being ungrateful for the food they provided by letting us go without dinner that night, could that possibly have been a loving way of allowing us to learn a lesson?  Was it loving for our parents to kick us out of our homes because we refused to abide by their rules?

Taking these options forces us to reconsider our definition of love, and that's not easy.  I know from experience that I really didn't want to revise my definition of love.  I would really have preferred leaving it as it was, though once I was able to admit to myself that it was a really self-serving and incoherent definition, I was able to to abandon it.

Once I admitted to myself that my definition of love implied that the most loving thing I could do for my family and friends was to remove their nervous system so as to end all their suffering, I was able to let go of the idea that allowing suffering was not loving.  Once I admitted to myself that my definition of love implied that I would need to advocate for all expecting mothers to have an abortion so that they could prevent lives full of suffering, I realized that my definition had a very serious problem.  And once I admitted that because my definition of love excluded enacting consequences against the wishes of others, along with the fact that this implied that I could not enact consequences against those who wished to cause suffering to myself or others, I was able to realize that I hadn't been making much sense at all.

So I decided that this time around, I was going to take options 5, 6 and 7.  How do you solve the Problem of Love?  Is it options 1 or 2?  Options 8 or 9?  Options 3 or 4?  Why?

By Turgis - Turgis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45719762