Thursday, August 29, 2013

the least repugnant excuse for supernatural inaction

Faith in the supernatural can be difficult to maintain. The more that a believer lives, the more disappointments they experience. Their supernatural entities frequently decline to act, regardless of the quantity, sincerity, or decency of human pleas.

Furthermore, their entities decline to publicly and explicitly explain the full details of their involvement in real occurrences. The sophisticated and subtle reasoning behind the entity's inaction is an additional task left for either the pleader or a zealous human "spokesperson" for the silent entity. Of course, the opposite tactic is explaining that the entity really did respond, but the oblique response appeared to be an ordinary event or it was almost unnoticeable. For example, "A close friend, who knows about my current dissatisfaction, told me about an open position at a different company." Or, "I suddenly felt tranquil."

Naturally, some of these suggested explanations for supernatural inaction are highly superstitious. Did the pleader do something that displeased the entity? Was the pleader too presumptuous? Is the entity's inaction an intentional part of an incredibly complex scheme?

However, one excuse might be the least repugnant: what if a supernatural entity acted nonexistent in order to force humans to make their own significant decisions, confront their own consequences, and develop their own virtues? What if it had the goal of encouraging autonomy, self-responsibility, self-determination, self-discovery? What if it planned to teach humans goodness by permitting them to confirm the terrible alternatives for themselves? What if it considered almost all supernatural actions to be forms of coercion? It's a valid ethical value to permit individuals to meaningfully exercise their individual powers and think their individual thoughts.

On the other hand, this least repugnant excuse still isn't sufficient to override a simpler explanation for inactivity: a supernatural entity that's nonexistent. It raises the same general question as the perennial Problem Of Evil: how inconsistent and/or implausible is it to suppose that discovered reality fits a hypothetical supernatural entity pursuing its hypothetical goals using its hypothetical levels of supernatural powers and knowledge? It's a problematic question whether its hypothetical goal is humanity's happiness or autonomy (or conformity to supernatural diktat for that matter). Existing reality isn't an ideal maximum of any of these human experiences. The observed lack of supernatural action just doesn't match the proposal of an entity with that combination of characteristics.

Specifically, if a supernatural entity has a top goal of teaching and testing humans to decide ethical questions for themselves, then it's illogically overlooking a multitude of chances to promote progress toward that goal. It's evidently not applying its supernatural powers or knowledge to remove the following obstacles, each of which limits the overall experience of humans learning and/or making ethical decisions without coercion.
  • death - There are two options. Either normal life or the afterlife is a better opportunity for humans to develop their ethical decision-making. If the afterlife is, then the entity should mercifully send humans to the afterlife immediately. If normal life is, then the entity should be actively delaying human death regularly. Otherwise, once a human dies, their better opportunity to develop is cut short. Someone may argue that a particular death shouldn't be stopped whenever it's a predictable consequence of the deceased's evil actions, but that exception is counterproductive to the goal. The consequence of one or more evil decisions shouldn't be the total inability to learn or make any more decisions. Fatal mistakes stop ethical development rather than contribute to it. 
  • inaccurate or omitted information - The most ethical decision is typically dependent on many factors of a situation. It might have numerous rippling effects. It might require complicated balances between the desires and claims of several participants. It might overlap between conflicting ethical principles, which aren't equally applicable to the situation. Due to inaccurate or omitted information, an unethical decision can seem ethical to the decision-maker. Deception or fraud can wreck a decision, too. Presumably, informing a decision-maker doesn't qualify as coercion at all, especially when it undoes the spread of misinformation. A supernatural entity which wants humans to make ethical decisions shouldn't hesitate to (intelligibly!) communicate the situation's "big picture" to them.
  • inaccurate or omitted ethical training - A supernatural entity focused on human ethical development implies two assertions. 1) Ethics is a topic that needs to be carefully developed in humans. 2) The entity has definite ideas about what ethical details should be developed. But humans constantly disagree about ethical details, sometimes violently. Moreover, they train their children according to their differing ethics. Unsurprisingly, differing ethical training has a drastic and lasting influence on future decision-making. Yet the hypothetical supernatural entity doesn't intervene to clarify ethical confusion or fix the faults of any ethical training (judged by its ethical ideas). It's like a schoolteacher who shows up in person only on the final day of class to hand out exams to bewildered students. (Add teaching assistants to the analogy if desired.)
  • oppression and interference - Although the supernatural domain could be high-minded, human societies often aren't. A mysterious supernatural ruler might have strong respect and tolerance of independent human decisions, but not all earthling rulers necessarily do. Frankly, a spotless record of ethical decisions isn't enough to ensure beneficial consequences when the decision-maker is vulnerable to unethical associates. Societal context could reward unethical decisions, such as breaking a past agreement to gain a competitive advantage. A pitiful set of constraints could enforce painful dilemmas between ethics or surviving. Or society could forbid the more ethical decision. Whatever the case or the mechanism, human decisions can interfere with one another. Paradoxically, it's more damaging to the process of independent human decision-making to allow some humans to decide to interfere with other humans' decisions.
The concept of a powerful supernatural entity that's idle because it prizes human decision-making is less repugnant than some alternatives. But that doesn't mean the concept is coherent and convincing in relation to the reality that humanity occupies.

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