Eyes Above The Waves

Robert O'Callahan. Christian. Repatriate Kiwi. Hacker.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Theodicy And The Prime Directive

I recently read the "Night's Dawn Trilogy" by Peter Hamilton. I can't decide how good it is. Much of it is brilliant, but much of it is long-winded. It seems he took the great idea "what if, hundreds of years in the future, we discovered that souls were a natural phenomenon?" and ran with it ... for nearly four thousand pages.

One aspect of his writing I like is that he lets his characters hold opposing viewpoints, well-justified and strongly expressed; you can't tell who he favours. A lot of authors (many of whom should know better) let some character speak with the author's own voice, presenting only token opposition from other characters. I didn't like the ending; it must be the most literal deus ex machina I've ever read. Although at least it did end --- Neal Stephenson, I'm looking at you.

In the last book, a character presents the classic argument that the existence of evil proves the non-existence of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god. (I expect this is Hamilton's own view, although it's hard to be sure.) This intrigued me because Hamilton portrays multiple near-omnipotent alien civilizations pursuing a policy of not interfering with lesser species such as humans; this policy is apparently benevolent, on the grounds that it gives us self-determination, the opportunity to reach our own potential, etc. (Of course this is not a new idea; it's an old tradition in science fiction, perhaps most famous in the form of Star Trek's "Prime Directive".) I think there's a double standard here! Surely similar theodicies apply to both God and the Kiint.

I realize that science fiction needs superior civilizations to pursue a policy of non-intervention, otherwise god-like aliens will swoop in and solve all problems on page four. If there is too much intervention, there is no story to tell. I think maybe that applies to God too.


Giorgio Maone
Well, I can't see how saving an innocent child who suffers from abuse or starvation or war or terminal illness would undermine his self-determination, the opportunity to reach his own potential, etc.
A god allowing such kind of evil is either an omnipotent, omniscient bastard, or an omnibenevolent, omniscient impotent, or an omnipotent, omnibenevolent ignorant. Either way, it doesn't resemble the being described by christian theology, which can't exist by simple logic. It's more like bad, albeit very successful, SF...
When it makes no difference for a being whether it intervenes or not then it looks like non-intervention is a statement.
I think a key problem with both the Prime Directive and this theodicy (speaking as a current Star Trek fan and former Christian) is that they must either assert that suffering and struggle are beneficial in and of themselves or else that the change/loss of a culture that would occur with a sudden leap to utopia is worse than the aggregate suffering of the (current AND future) members of the culture.
Look at things from the other side: If you could prevent every plague and war and genocide in human history at the cost of turning every human into an Oprah-watching, celebrity-obsessed couch potato (who also happen to be immortal and infinitely blissful), wouldn't you?
Personally, I have a hard time seeing how having the works of Shakespeare is worth cancer or Pol Pot or the Trail of Tears...
I do, however, agree that the character's assertion about evil is illogical. Any argument that declaims the existence of a god that is perfectly powerful and benevolent on the basis of those attributes must apply to anything else that shares those attributes.
The difference between benevolent advanced alien civilizations and a non-interventionist creator god is that the creator god is assumed to be responsible for its creations because it created them. If a farmer lets his herds die of starvation, our society punishes the farmer, so why should god be exempt?
Robert Kaiser
I love that thought.
And, of course, I always knew that science fiction (and Star Trek) were right in some things! ;-)
Robert O'Callahan
Bob: I haven't seen "we're going to let you suffer because we didn't create you" used as a justification for the Prime Directive.
So why did God intervene all the bloody time in the Old Testament, let His only son only pull some unimpressive magic tricks and faith healing in the gospels, and then basically stop intervening in the 2000 years since?
Sean Hogan
I used to try and justify God. But if you knew me you would ask what makes me such an expert on good and evil.
Robert O'Callahan
skierpage: In fact there are relatively few miracles in most of the Old Testament. For example in the time of David there were hardly any miracles. Of course you'd expect to have miracles when God himself walks on earth. I wouldn't call resurrection unimpressive.
We should be more careful about the word "intervention" too. I don't mean to suggest that God isn't doing things when we're not seeing miracles. He's less overt ... more like Ian Banks' "Contact" agents :-).
Jim B
Robert, do you really mean to take the contrivance of a work of fiction and somehow leverage that to justify Biblical legitimacy?
I could just as easily pick some other work of fiction where a mad scientist develops a technology and uses it wantonly to help one group prevail against another. The book would be boring without it, so it is justified. Can I then say this illustrates why God had to favor the chosen tribe over all others, even at the expense of genocidal destruction (hey, nothing personal, it was simply foretold; better luck next time).
Robert O'Callahan
No. I'm just pointing out the similarities between "Prime Directives" and theodicy, and suggesting that people should treat them consistently.
To those who reason that God cannot exist because our world is filled with much suffering, I'd recommend "The problem of pain" by C S Lewis.
"A god allowing such kind of evil is either an
omnipotent, omniscient bastard, or an
omnibenevolent, omniscient impotent, or an
omnipotent, omnibenevolent ignorant."
Giorgio: Why do you object to people suffering?
I've not read the book, but this simmilar sort of logic applies all over sci-fi and usually the idea is the races, like Humans in Star-Trek, are neither omnipotent nor omnibenevolent.
The arguement goes that while they may have a huge amount of resources, to interfere on a species level requires an infinite amount of resources to get just right making them not omnipotent. And ultimately these species have their own self-interest somewhere in the equation preventing them from getting involved for practical reasons, making them not omnibenevolent.
Ian Hickson
FWIW, apparently Peter F Hamilton is "almost an atheist": http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/24/sciencefictionfantasyandhorror
Re the Night Dawn Trilogy: I love that book. I can highly recommend Hamilton's other works. If you liked the Night's Dawn universe, read the shorts in his short-stories book "A Second Chance at Eden". If you liked his long books, then you'll like his commonwealth universe: start with his "Misspent Youth" novel, and then read the Commonwealth Saga (two books) and the Void Trilogy (which he finished last year). The endings are better than in Night's Dawn. :-)
He also has some other novels, namely "Fallen Dragon" and a series of sci-fi crime novels that focus on a character Greg Mandel.
Robert O'Callahan
Re "almost an atheist" --- I certainly got that impression!
I'm not sure if I'll read his other books. I don't have much time for reading so I have to be very selective, and to me "Night's Dawn" wasn't as good as good Banks or Vinge, for example. Not that I expect new good Banks or Vinge to appear anytime soon...
Tony Mechelynck
How does one define «omnipotent» and «omnibenevolent»? I don't personally believe in an omnipotent, omnibenevolent god constantly meddling with human affairs; but even if I did, I hold that if evil didn't exist, we wouldn't know what Good is, because we know it only by comparison. Living in an uneventful marshmallow "Paradise" doesn't appeal to me.