The Table Video

Tim O'Connor

Tim O'Connor on Freedom, Human Persons, and the Problem of Evil (Full Interview)

Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University
December 15, 2012

CCT Associate Director Tom Crisp interviews Tim O’Connor (Professor of Philosophy, Indiana University) on neuroscience and human freedom, the nature of human persons, and the existential problem of evil in The Brothers Karamazov.


Hi, I’m Tom Crisp, professor in the philosophy department here at Biola and associate director of Biola Center for Christian Thought and I’m delighted to have with me today, Professor Tim O’Connor, professor of philosophy at Indiana University. And Tim has agreed to spend some time talking with us about the soul, about free will, and we though too we might talk a bit about some questions having to do with evil and the problem of evil. So Tim, thanks for being with us.

Thanks for having me.

Well let me start with some questions about free will. There has been some recent work in neuroscience and in social psychology, which many scientists have interpreted as making trouble for traditional belief in free will. And so I wondered if you could tell us a bit about some of this research. Both the neuro scientific research and the social psychological research and tell us your thoughts about what does it show?

There’s a lot of really fascinating work going on in both, as you say neuroscience and social psychology. You can think of it as trying to get under the hood of our how brains work in help shaping our behavior. And people of course, have known for centuries that the activity of our brains is relevant to how we choose and decide. People have known that if you get hit over the head with a hard, heavy object that’s probably going to affect your subsequent behavior, maybe cause you to become unconscious or worse. Beginning in the early ’80s a scientist by the name of Benjamin Libet devised a series of interesting studies that people thought had a very surprising, shocking implication. The studies are very simple. You were asked to sit in a room and to perform a simple behavior. So you already decide ahead of time what your behavior’s going to be. Maybe just lift your right index finger and wiggle it. And you’re asked to do this within a 20 to 30 second interval of time, but crucially you’re not to plan ahead of time exactly when you’re going to do it. The goal is for you to spontaneously decide, right, when you shall wiggle your finger. And while you’re waiting for the impulse to do this, you’re watching a clock fixed on a wall that’s not an ordinary clock. It has a very fast moving dial that goes a few times per second. And you’re asked to notice that first moment at which you felt the impulse to go ahead and wiggle your finger and to notice where the dial on that clock was at that moment. And of course, observation of the clock, light signals, all that takes a bit of time. Scientists know how to adjust for that. To try to zero on when you felt was the actual moment at which I felt this urge to wiggle your behavior. And then the surprising thing was that for almost a half second prior to the time you said you felt the impulse, there was a steady build up of electrical activity in the cerebral cortex that they call the readiness potential. That some scientists interpreted as the brain preparing to trigger the relevant behavior.


And so the interpretation that Benjamin Libet put on this was that your brain had decided before you consciously had decided to go ahead and move your finger. And so what you, your sense of impulse was actually a product of an unconscious subpersonal, physical decision of that. And so if that’s the correct interpretation and crucially if the Libet type experiment generalizes to the kind of decision making we make naturally outside of experimental context, then the implication would be that we are deceived when we think we autonomously, consciously decide when to act. It’s somehow encoded in unconscious brain processes.

So the idea is that the free decisions or apparently free decisions are actually being caused by brain processes that happen before we’re ever consciously aware of having decided anything.

Right. And my take on that is that I don’t think these experiments show what Libet suggested that they show. I think we need to pay attention to certain things about the experiments themselves to begin with. First is that the behavior you’re going to perform is something you have already decided before the experiment is run. You’ve been told, we want you to decide to wiggle your finger. And that’s not typical. Usually when we think of moral choices we make we have it pre-decided what it is we’re going to do and it’s only up to us what the time at which we shall act. We typically have yet to decide what it is exactly we’re going to do. So that’s one way in which it’s atypical of ordinary decision making. Secondly, another way it’s atypical is that I’m being asked if I’m the subject in the experiment to kind of monitor what’s going on in my mind subjectively. I’m asked to discern an impulse or urge or wish to move. And so that invites me to take almost a passive role, an observer role upon myself. And that of course is not what we’re usually doing. We’re usually, our attention is directed outward at our behavior, at what our goals are out in the world. And that might be relevant in that what could well be happening in the Libet experiment is that we are just passively waiting for some subjective sort of experience, phenomena to occur and it might well be that our prior decision to participate in the experiment slowly evolves into a, unconsciously into a building desire or anticipation that I’m about to do this. And but it might not be a prototype of the kinds of choices that we ordinarily make. A third thing to observe about the experiment is that this so called readiness potential is just a very generalized build up of activity. There’s no evidence to think that it is specifically directed at the behavior that we’re about to perform and if left unchecked that it would inevitably usher in the resulting behavior. I think there is evidence to suggest that there is build up of readiness potential in lots of circumstances where no behavior issues forth. So it’s not a sufficient condition on our making the choice. So my way of reading the experiment, all it suggests is that there’s a lot of activity going on in our brain, even when we spontaneously decide something, executing actual behavior requires the marshaling of certain forces, the triggering of the motor cortex. And there’s preparatory activity when we anticipate we’re about to perform an action. But that’s not surprising. It’s not somehow suggesting that we lack autonomy when it comes to the choices that we eventually make.

And might it be that the preparatory activity is perhaps a desire, something like, I think I’m about, I’m wanting to move my hand pretty quickly here. Or an urge, I’m having the urge to move my hand, which is then followed by a decision or an intention and so it’s being, what we’re seeing is this urge or desire?

Yes, actually. It might well be and in fact, I think that’s a very natural interpretation. And this might be true often in when we’re deliberating and we know we need to make an impending decision. There might be a slow, you know first unconsciously, and then we become aware.

Okay, I think this is how I’m going to decide. I’ll go for the chocolate ice cream rather than the vanilla ice cream. I’ve gotta make a decision here. So yes, it might well be that. But that doesn’t suggest that the choice itself was sort of already in the cards. It just means we are having a building inclination towards making a choice. And so that perhaps our choices are not utterly spontaneous in the sense of just being in neutral and then decision. And that’s not, reflectively just from my sort common sense point of view, reflecting on our own choices and different types of scenarios in which we make choices, that’s not terribly surprising that that should be so.

Right, so one way you can imagine it going is it could happen. I’m having an urge to raise my hand. I am desiring to. But then I decide not to.


So might it be that you get the readiness potential, the urge to do something, but you don’t do it.

Yes, and in fact, Libet himself who was quite disturbed by the results of his experiment, he went on to do subsequent experiments where we told people, just as before, to look for that urge to decide to move your finger and then suppress it. And then don’t actually, it’s a very, it’s a kind of complicated if you think about, behavior to execute. And some people reported not being able to do it, but because you’re supposed to decide to do it and then cut off your decision before you actually do it. It’s a kind of Jui Jitzu on yourself sort of thing. But some people reported being able to do this, and in fact, that’s exactly the result they got. They got this build up of a readiness potential and then it tapered back down.

Now it’s my understanding that since the original Libet experiment in the ’80s, there have been some follow up experiments that have been done in more sophisticated ways. Can you talk at all about some of the follow up experiments and do they show us anything different?

Yes, so there’s Patrick Ugard, a neuroscientist in London. Haquan Low, a psychologist neuroscientist at Columbia University, have both done a number of successor studies, has had a variety of other scientists. These are refinements on the original methodology. And I think in some cases they have asked people to make a choice, whether to move, not just your right finger, but among that, but also to spontaneously decide whether to move the left or the right finger. So now there’s a little more, now the specific action is not entirely preplanned. And they did find a build up of readiness potential in this kind of scenario as well, but I think some of the same responses we’ve already discussed apply to these. So I don’t think the fundamental criticism of the interpretation, that no free will interpretation of the experiments apply in these scenarios as well. And I should not there have been some recent studies that have gotten somewhat different results from Libet himself, so I gather it’s still a little bit controversial, just how well established some of this, some of his just purely empirical, uninterpreted his empirical findings are.

You’ve done quite a bit of writing on the nature of the human person and how to think about what human persons are from a philosophical, as well as a theological perspective. So I wondered if you could tell us a bit about your view, emergent individuals. Your ideas that what we are as emergent individuals. And perhaps you could tell us both a bit about the view and then how you think it connects up with questions about traditional Christian belief in the afterlife. The intermediate state, the resurrection and so forth.

Right. So I should start off by saying that I, and probably most philosophers, theologians would say we have tentative views about exactly what the nature of the human person is. How to understand traditional language of the soul and how that connects up with our clearly, deeply embedded, embodied nature. There are different views and as you say, I’ve tried to articulate one sort of view that’s a somewhat nontraditional view. I’m not at all certain that it’s correct. But with the traditional view that is embedded, there’s good evidence from anthropology just in human thought generally, let alone specifically religious thought is that human persons fundamentally are non-physical souls are averse, just centers of consciousness.

Immaterial minds or souls.

Exactly. That in some way are bound up with bodies. This seems to be a deeply embedded intuitive human belief. And it’s certainly embedded in much traditional Christian thought. And one can understand why. It makes it much easier to understand how we might survive death and it can fit very well with different ways we might conceive of the general resurrection long after we have died and our bodies have decayed. Part of my hesitation for embracing that view, I think there are some significant philosophical reasons that motivate this view, which I won’t go into here, but I do think empirically that we, what we’ve come to learn about ourselves is both in terms of our embeddedness and the history of biological life and the slow development of biological life over time. And also just within an individual organism, our biological development for embryonic to fully mature human beings is a slow, gradual process. And the reason I see this as at least posing a challenge for the traditional conception of the soul as a distinct thing is that the soul, on this traditional view, it has no parts. It’s a simple center of conscious awareness and psychological capacities of willing and desiring and thinking and so on. And so it seems like if, so if the soul is present from our earliest moment in a embryonic state, then it must, the capacities it has, the psychological capacities it has must be the same as the same basic capacities we have now as fully mature human beings. So with a bit of study we can learn to do calculus. Right, we have the capacity to engage in very abstract, rigorous mathematical thought. And this is on the soul view, that capacity it seems would have to have resided even in the embryonic life, the soul of the individual embryo because there’s no, at least it’s not clear to me that we can tell a story about how psychological capacities develop if there are not parts and development, biological development. So we know biologically, a lot about the development of organisms and the human organism. And it seems a more natural interpretation is to suppose that as our neural structure develops, our brain and central nervous system develops and matures, that we come to have more sophisticated cognitive capacities. And so that view, it seems to me, it fits better with the thought that what we are fundamentally are biological organisms that have certain capacities that don’t reduce to mere biology. Psychological capacities, again, of willing and of thinking and desiring. We have states, we have a point of view on the world that is a subjective kind of state that I don’t think can be identified with a neuro physiological state. So I do embrace a kind of dualism, a dualism of psychological states or capacities. But I see those states and capacities as residing within a living, breathing organism or most directly associated, of course, with parts of our brain.

So as opposed to the dualistic view, according to which we have two parts. An immaterial part and a material part, our body, which are joined together in some way. When we die, the immaterial part separates and has some kind of intermediate state that is later joined up in resurrection with the body. On your view, there aren’t these two parts. We are material organisms. And we have features or characteristics that can’t be explained in terms of the underlying, or can’t be wholly explained in terms of the underlying physics. But we’re just material organisms.

Right and so those, these capacities that we have that don’t reduce to merely physical biological capacities, these physiological capacities we have are nonetheless, on the picture I’m entertaining, wholly sustained body. But it required an intact functioning brain and nervous system that’s fed nutrients and oxygen and so on. All the precursers of biological life. All of this is necessary for those capacities to persist as they do throughout our lives. But at death, of course, the physical processes break down. Our bodies slowly decay in the typical case, or very rapidly in certain unfortunate cases. But our bodies break down. And so then those, it would seem those capacities simply cease to be.

So the worry is going to be, that some Christians will raise, is well what about an intermediate state? What about dying and being with Christ? And what about an eventual resurrection? And so how does your view think about those things?

Yes, so the worry would be at death we cease to be, if what defines us fundamentally are those capacities and they cease to be. And the brain disintegrates, then we cease to be. And how could there be an intermediate state? And you might even worry, how could we even come to be at a later time? You might think, well what God does is regather the fundamental particles that composed my body at the time of my death and reanimates them. This was a popular way of thinking about the resurrection. But the problem is it’s unclear that that would be me. Of course, for multiple reasons. One of which is parts of me might eventually enter the biosphere and become parts of other human beings. And so then we’d have people vying for control over these cells, who gets to have them. But another, more fundamental worry is that this picture of ourselves as a special kind of biological organism suggests that material, physical continuity is essential to our nature. And simply regathering parts in the form that they once were, it’s not clear that that is going to be me as opposed to another individual who’s made to be like me. And a way to bring this out is science tells us that our bodies are constantly taking on and shedding parts. And there’s now even reason to think that that’s true even of our brain cells. So perhaps the parts that composed me on my 10th birthday, none of those parts are now part of my body now. Or maybe very, very few. Suppose that, and so those parts have entered the biosphere. Suppose God were to, as He could, regather those parts right now and put them in the exact form of my body and my state at some moment on my 10th birthday and plop that individual down right next to me.

A human version of the Ship of Theseus puzzle.

Yes, but I would say that’s not me. That’s someone, that would be a quite startling state of affairs. It would be as if I were looking at my younger self. But that would not be be. I’m me, I am the continuation of that individual who was once 10 and is now much older. But that’s, and we can’t both be me, since I’m not him. We’re not identical to each other. And so it seems like we go with the individual who is a continuation of the individual, of the original individual. Not someone who just happened to have had the parts recycled and reanimated. And so then if you apply this to the resurrection scenario, the worry would be well that’s just God creating an individual, recycling old parts that once were part of me to create an individual a lot like me. But of course, I care. Christian hope is that I, myself, will persist in the afterlife. So okay, so I’m trying to emphasize the difficulties for my view of how to make sense out of survival of death. One scenario that was proposed about a dozen years ago by philosopher Dean Zimmerman that I like and I think can be adapted to my view, is to suppose that, well let me set it up this way. This is a, think of this as a kind of science fictiony story. What we’re after here is an attempt to show that it’s at least possible, there’s some way in which I could survive death consistent with all the observable facts. Okay? Now this scenario sounds very strange. But so how we actually survive death if anything like my view is correct, I don’t really know. God probably has more imaginative possibilities than I can contemplate. But here’s one possibility where we could at least see a conceivable way it could go. All right, so suppose that just as you are about to die, whether of disease or because you are unfortunately situated with respect to a very large bus that is right in front of you, suppose that at just that moment, the cells of your body fission. Right, like amebas, fission. Right, so each individual fundamental particle of your body fissions into two duplicate sets, okay. One product of that fission is just your body right where your body was prior to the fissioning. And the other set God miraculously causes to appear in a different space, safely out of harm’s way.

Some other region of space. Time and disconnected space time somewhere.

Yes, right. Wherever the intermediate life might occur. If that’s the case, then I would say there’s reason to say that that product, that safely preserved product would be me, right? The body that subsequently dies, it too, it might be the very stuff of which I had been created. It is the dead body, the remains of me. But I continue to exist in an embodied state somewhere else.

And so then the question’s gonna be, well of these two results of the fission, why do you go with the living one instead of the one that bought when it got hit by the bus?

Yeah, right. Well I think the reason to say that is that what defines me as me, as not merely a material hunk of matter that’s recycling parts, but as a human person are my capacities. Physiological capacities, moral capacities, even spiritual capacities. Capacity for awareness of God. That’s what defines me as a human being made in God’s image. And those capacities are preserved in a continuous way in the body that survives. And so it seems like that’s the continuation of my life, my full bledded life as a living thinking human individual. Where as the now dead hunk of matter lacks those capacities. And so that seems appropriate to say that’s an off shoot of me, whereas the other product is me. That’s the continuation.

So we see then how there could be an intermediate state if such a fissioning were to happen. You would be existing somewhere prior to the resurrection.

Tim: Yes.

And then how does resurrection work on the view.

Good, yeah yeah, and so you might say, well okay, so we continue as embodied beings. It makes the resurrection look anti-climactic. Right, whereas the content of Christian hope, we look forward to the resurrection of the dead. If I already have a body, what’s so special about the general resurrection? That would be one way of posing the question. I should say that, you know, Christians, not all Christians have thought there is such a state, as an intermediate state between death and the resurrection. Although it’s a very widespread view and there’s some reason to think it’s so based on our theological sources in the Bible. A few fleeting passages suggest that it is so. And often the language of soul is used to describe the souls of those waiting for the resurrection. And so you might say, well doesn’t the Bible just straightforwardly indicate that we don’t have bodies. That we are just souls. But there I think the term soul is, there’s reason to think that the Biblical authors don’t have a particular metaphysical view about what the soul, what constitutes the soul. Right, it’s a, it’s that aspect of ourselves that is our physiological and spiritual aspect of ourselves. And I think it’s an interpretation to say that consistent and immaterial substance, that could be so. But I don’t think that there’s a clear teaching in the Bible one way or the other. Just because the language is used and that language is traditionally associated with a certain metaphysical picture. So embrace the language of the soul. It’s Biblical language and it’s one, what’s at issue is how exactly we should think about that. So yeah, so on my picture then, because we are essentially embodied, the interim state would have to be in the embodied state. But it could be that it’s a very impoverished type embodied state. Certainly we’re told by the Apostle Paul in the one extended passage that we have in the Bible about the resurrection in his epistle to the Corinthians, that… Well first of all, Paul uses the analogy, he says as a seed is sown into the ground and becomes a living plant, so our bodies sown into the ground at death rise and become something very different. All right. So there’s an implied material continuity of some sort as just because the seed is materially continuous with even a very large tree that subsequently develops out of it. But also a significant discontinuity where our bodies are said to be imperishable, indestructible, right. Presumably human persons who are subject to all sorts of grave, physical deformities or cognitive impairments that are biologically rooted are not going to continue to labor under those problems in the afterlife. So there’s gonna be dramatic change. And our bodies are not as they are now constituted, are subject easily to decay. So there’s going to be dramatic change. And so the way I think of the resurrection moving from an interim state is a very rapid process of change over, of possibly of the very particles that constitute our bodies. Certainly of the environment that we will inhabit to make the language that Paul uses, the great truce that Paul holds out, holds forth to us, that we will one day have imperishable bodies to be possible. Just as you know, science now contemplates people, artificial sorts of parts that can be grafted and integrated within the human body where we have diseased parts of our bodies. Who knows what the possibilities are for God to, in a way that involves a continuous process, where I continue to exist and be conscious, nevertheless my body undergoes very rapid change. And so that’s how I would think of the resurrection. Now you might say, well that doesn’t sound like resurrection. But it could, God could speed up those processes. It could take place in an extremely short interval of time and it could be a dramatic change. And so it could be, experientially, it could be as if I’m suddenly something all together new.

Well you think about the way the resurrection is depicted in Jesus’ case. You might think it was a rapid transformation of this recently diseased organism, into a new kind of organism. So one thing that seems, at least logically possible. I wonder what you’d have to say about a scenario like this. So we can certainly imagine that God affects a fission of the kind you described. And splits you into two. But likewise we can imagine God splitting you into many more than two. How do you think about a scenario in which God fissions you into five different duplicates. One gets blown to smithereens somehow. Presumably you don’t go with that one. But now what about the remaining four? Which of those is you, and how on your picture does that get decided?

Yeah. Well I think at the end of the day, I am a, there’s a primitive fact about being the individual that I am. And well, let’s consider the soul case. Of course souls, they don’t have parts. I wanna make a point that I’ll carry over because I think there’s an analogous question that applies to the soul, though it’s not obvious. The soul doesn’t have parts so the soul can’t fission, perhaps. But human beings, if we are mental substances, souls, are associated with bodies. And interact with our bodies by our brains. And our brains in the natural order of things, sustain our souls in existence on this picture. Now God might miraculously take over what the brain was doing in sustaining our souls at death, but while things are going naturally, the functioning of our soul, indeed it’s plausible that the very existence of our soul is sustained by the brain. Now our brain is composed of two hemispheres, along with a brain stem and a band of fibers that connects those hemispheres so that they can communicate. And you can sever that band of fibers that connects it. And we could imagine a future kind of surgery where the hemispheres are completely separated but both preserved and transplanted into two different bodies. And each of the hemispheres is sufficient for sustaining a soul and indeed a thinking mind. There’s a lot of duplication of biological, mental function in the two hemispheres. Our two hemispheres are not perfectly symmetrical, but we can imagine a scenario where they were made to be perfectly symmetrical. That’s just a troubling detail, but let’s not worry about that. So let’s pretend as if there were perfect symmetry. So now how should a dualist who thinks of human persons as souls think about what would happen in this scenario? There are three possibilities. It could be that me, my soul, goes with, let’s call him lefty, the left individual. Or it could be that it goes with righty. Or it could be that it goes with neither. Two new souls come into existence, I go out of existence. It can’t be that I’m both because they’re not identical to each other, right. So presumably there’s a fact of the matter, right? But it would seem from an empirical point of view to be just arbitrary to say, I’m lefty or I’m righty. Both lefty and righty will claim to be me because they’ll have continuity of memory and so forth. One of them has just appeared in existence with a lot of false memories about who he or she is. But at least one of them. But it could be, could be the case that in fact I am one of those individuals. There’s a fact of the matter. It has to be the case that either I’m one of them or I’m none of them. And it’s unclear that there’s anything you could point to about the nature of the bodies, the hemispheres that would dictate which of those it is. It’s just an ultimate fact. It’s kind of mind boggling. It seems like it’d be a fact that could be known only to God, perhaps. And so I would say similarly if God certainly would have the power to cause the fissioning of my body into multiple bodies, living bodies. And He could do it in such a way and He would know which of those individuals would be me, assuming any would. But there would be no way of determining it. So it’s just a brute fact of being me. My individuality is not something that’s reducable to just all the facts about me. I am an individual thing and so I don’t, you know, I don’t know how that would go. But I don’t think there’s anything we could point to empirically that would tip us off to which one was me. But there’d still be a fact of the matter.

So some philosophers have used the term, thisness, is the idea that there’s a primitive feature or a constituent of you that makes you you, that would go with one of these bodies and not with the others. And it would be by virtue of that thisness, this property or constituent that followed one of these bodies and not the others, that that one is you.

Yes, I think, so. I mean, so imagine two identical human individuals. Not just identical twins, but who are created at the same moment with the exact physiological profile. Exact same memories. Exact same beliefs, desires, and intensity of desires. Exact same intentions, goals, et cetera. Clearly they’d be two, I’ve just described the scenario. It’s perfectly coherent. There are two, but they might be, in terms of their properties that they have, their characteristics, utterly identical. And yet they’re different. There’s just a brute fact of being this individual and being that individual. And that brute fact of thisness, you know, being this and being that, isn’t determined by anything about the characteristics of the individuals that are their nature. It’s just a brute fact of individuality.

Philosophers sometimes distinguish between different problems of evil. So the problem of evil. How is that the existence of all of this suffering we find ourselves confronted with is compatible with the existence of a, an all good, all powerful, all knowing God. If God is all good, wouldn’t He want to prevent so much of this horrific suffering? And if He’s all powerful and all knowing, wouldn’t He have the power and know how to do so? And so why do we find ourselves confronted with all of this suffering? Now, this is a kind of theoretical problem. But it’s also, there’s also an existential problem that we face when we encounter terrible evil in our own lives and in the lives of others. It can induce a kind of vertigo. It can make it very difficult to believe that there is a God, of the kind described by traditional Christianity. And so you’ve done some really interesting thinking and writing about this existential problem of evil. As it’s treated in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky and his beautiful character, Father Zosima. And so I wonder if you could tell us a bit about how you think about the practical problem of evil, and what you think Dostoevsky’s solution or reply to this problem is. And then whether you think it works. Whether you find it persuasive.

Yeah, the practical problem is, sometimes we find ourselves quite rightly feeling a revulsion against certain kinds of really horrific evil that certainly others in the world experience and maybe we ourselves have been touched by at some point in our lives. And it induces in us a profound sense of these things ought not to be this way and we don’t want to align ourselves with any grand scheme of things such that this is a part of what’s being planned. But of course, as theists, the problem is God has permitted that a world, for us to exist in a world where precisely such horrible things have happened. And so then, for some individuals when they experience this kind of intense suffering, they find themselves just physiologically withdrawing from God. Because perhaps out of an identification with the sufferer, they feel they don’t want to simply say that, well God is holy just, and God is perfectly good, and He will bring good our of horrific evil. They worry that this seems to say that they should not properly grieve the suffering that human individuals experience. Many religious individuals sometimes report not so much theoretically ceasing to believe that God exists when they encounter evil, but just God feeling distant and feeling the inability to draw near to God and to love God, to trust God given His willing permission of these kinds of suffering. And that’s the way that Dostoevsky frames the evil in The Brothers Karamazov, which I think is just a terrific novel in many ways. You have three sons of, that are all interesting characters, but one of them goes off. It’s set in Russia, of course, one of them goes off and is educated in the West and becomes a sort of enlightenment atheist type figure. And he frames the problem of evil this way. He says, I don’t want you, even if it’s true, that God will bring great good and cause ultimate harmony of all things in the eschaton. I don’t want to participate in that. And I want to declare now, I want to have no part of that. And it seems to be a kind of moral righteousness stand of saying, you know, maybe God could cause me to acquiesce in it, but I don’t want God to do that. I don’t want Him to change my mind about this. I want to just stand apart and stand with the suffering victim.

He puts it in terms of the suffering of a young child. And says if all of this requires the torture of this one innocent child, then I don’t want a part of it.

Yes, exactly. And so then there’s this other character, and Dostoevsky very much wrote, he wrote it in stages. It was published in serial form, as many 19th century novels were. And we have some of his correspondence. And he very much wanted the novel to offer a response to the problem of evil, and he feared that he did a better job of framing the problem of evil than he did in giving a powerful Christian response to it. And in fact, as you know in a lot of anthologies devoted to the problem of evil, you often get an excerpt of just Ivan, the brother, the atheist, his statement of the problem of evil. And it’s very painful to read and it’s recounting of just some horrific atrocities that occurred in and around that time. But this character, Father Zosima is a sort of, we’re introduced to him as the saintly monk that people come to and they just feel spiritual comfort, often just in his presence, even when he doesn’t speak. He’s this powerful saintly figure.

He’s a person overwhelming love. I mean, that’s the thing that most strikes you about him.

Right. So really a model of Christian virtue, a very Christ like figure. But he, at one point he recounts the story of his life and he indicates that actually, early on he was a violently angry young man and participated in dueling and such. And over the course of his life, he embraced the Christian faith and was slowly transformed. And he functions, I think, in Dostoevsky’s hands as a kind of witness too because he encounters people, people come to him who are suffering horribly. So he’s not sheltered from, he’s aware of the intense suffering of many individuals. And he just speaks with great confidence that it is possible to be reconciled to that without diminishing it and while still identifying with the victim of suffering. And he doesn’t tell us how. He just says it is possible to come to see things in this way. So I take it what Dostoevsky is doing, he’s saying he’s a kind of witness. If you get to a point of spiritual development that an individual like Father Zosima has, it’s possible to have an integration of your deep, profoundest moral convictions about the wrongness of horrific suffering and complete trust in the deep love of God. And so he, and we’re supposed to, what we, the readers are invited to take away is listen to the testimony of some individuals like that. It’s true, there aren’t that many of us that attain that level of saintliness in our lives, but there are some. And we should listen to them because these are, far from being individuals who are morally calloused they’re not dismissive of suffering. They have great sensitivity to suffering, and yet the also have profound intimacy with God. And they can experience it as a moral committedness and trust in the love of God. So I just think Dostoevsky’s solution is there are certain saints that are witnesses to us that it is possible to reconcile that. And then it’s an invitation for us to try to follow that path and to experience that for ourselves.

So is it that you can imagine someone in the grip of an existential crisis pulling, finding themselves repulsed, maybe, by God because of horrific suffering they’ve experienced or witnessed. And you can imagine trying to come in and give the person an argument, you know, a philosophical argument, which maybe in some cases might help. But in many cases, maybe it would feel cold and lifeless and unduly abstract. Is Dostoevsky in effect saying, well I’m not gonna give you an argument. I’m gonna give you a picture. This is what it looks like to be full of love, wholly trusting in God and His goodness. Wholly in solidarity with the suffering. This is what it looks like, it can be done. Contemplate this and it will bring healing to you? I mean, is this in effect the thought?

Yes, I think that’s it. I think he should perhaps add what he no doubt believes that some human individuals in this life may have experienced such profound suffering, say seeing the, he recounts a story of a mother seeing her child being deliberately killed, savagely right before her eyes. You know, the people who experience war time atrocities can become so physiologically damaged, it may be impossible, absent of miraculous divine intervention in this life for those individuals to experience the kind of peace and wholeness that a character like Father Zosima experiences. And I think we just have to recognize that. These individuals may be rendered naturally incapable of any physiological wholeness, wellness in this life. But God is capable of, Jesus is the great physician and we are promised that individuals who cling to God will, even if they’re not capable of experiencing that wholeness, that overcoming of deep woundedness, God can bring that about. And it’s hard to imagine sometimes how that could be, but I think as Christians, we also have to bear in mind that the God we worship is a God who suffered greatly on our behalf. And a kaniperary philosopher, Marilyn Adams, has interestingly speculated that one way in which people who’ve experienced horrific suffering might actually come to, in a way, have that suffering take on redemptive value for them, even though it remains an evil thing what they experienced, but it can’t come to have redemptive significance if God enables them in a kind of mystical way to yolk their suffering, see their suffering as a means of identification with the suffering of Christ on our behalf. The inner life of God who grieves over His suffering and sinful children and longs to have them return them and experience profound suffering and alienation in the second person of the trinity, incarnated and crucified. That could be, for some individuals in this life, they might say, you know, I can’t make that identification. It’s still, it doesn’t help me. But God could cause them to have insight into the character of God that it could somehow take on redemptive significance for them. And I find that a helpful suggestion. Just a possible intimation of a way that that could be done. And no doubt, it requires supernatural activity on the part of God, but we’re already–

Tom: We’re already committed.

Committed to that, yeah.

Now I can imagine someone saying, well okay, so maybe there are some Father Zosima, Father Zosima’s out there and good for them. I mean, they’ve been able to attain this state of perfect love and solidarity with the suffering and still cognizance of God’s goodness. But most people can’t do that. And now here I’m thinking of Ivan’s story of the Grand Inquisitor. And this critique of Jesus’ program of salvation as being too difficult for the masses. Only accessible to a few accessibly saintly types. And for the rest of us, and for the majority of us, holy and accessible. And so I can imagine somebody saying to Dostoevsky, okay I mean, great for Father Zosima, but there are so many of us who aren’t gonna be able to attain to that. So this isn’t really a help for the most of us. Maybe, at best, what you’re describing is a way out of the existential problem of evil for a few saintly types, but for the rest of us, no help here. How do you respond?

Yes, I do think Dostoevsky was sensitive to that. I think the thing to say is we clearly live in a deeply broken world. And we are given as a kind of gift, I think, really saintly individuals that can really strengthen our hope that the Christian faith is real, the kind of transformation that the gospel promises to us is a real possibility. We experience a bit of it, hopefully in our own lives, but perhaps not as profoundly as some seem to have done. But this life is not where it all comes together. And so what we, we have to live in hope that in our redeemed life we will ultimately come to experience that. It’s a mystery why some individuals are allowed to progress much further because they do so by the grace of God. And others struggle miserably and just barely cling to their faith and feel like they don’t see a great deal of progress. They struggle against besetting sins and character flaws that they can’t seem to shake. And this is part of the world in which God has set us. It’s a broken world and in a curious way, it’s a witness to the truth of the gospel. It teaches us just how deep the problem of sin is. And some people are in the unfortunate role of manifesting just how badly the brokenness can be. How ugly it can look. Both morally and just experientially effectively. So we have to hope that in our redeemed lives, all of us will eventually come to share. So it’s true, in a way the Grand Inquisitor is true that naturally speaking, given the run of the, you know, the range of human personalities and degrees of capacity to engage in discipline, spiritual, to participate in God’s process of transformation of ourselves in a disciplined, wholehearted way. We vary, as we human beings we vary in every dimension and includes even our capacity to undertake strenuous self reaffirmation by the grace of God. And that’s just a fact and we have to recognize that and recognize that some individuals are starting at a very different place and they need to measure their progress by where they’ve come from, not how far along they are along the path of true transformation.

But the thought is that the Father Zosima’s of the world, the saints, they’re giving us a picture of what we can hope for in Christ in the long run. Perhaps not in this life, but in the life to come.

Yes, and one thing I should add is that what Zosima is telling us is that he started out in a pretty bad place. He was a deeply angry, self centered, aggressive individual. Not at all a saintly individual. And by the grace of God, he ended up in this very, very different place. So it holds out hope that it’s possible, even for those who feel themselves to be the furthest from the ideal of Christ like character that the gospel points us to.

Well Tim, it’s been a pleasure talking with you. Thanks for being with us today.


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