Are some stories inherently bad?

A few weeks ago I watched a certain TV show on Netflix. I won’t say that I hated it, but I definitely didn’t like it. It was the season-ender of a series I normally like very much, and it ended tragically, almost pathetically.

I felt guilty that I didn’t like the sad ending. I am surrounded by people who want all their music to sound “pretty” and all the movies to leave them feeling good, but I was always told that it was superficial to think that way. Some great art, I believe, is meant to disturb us a little. So it felt wrong to say, “I wish that show had had a happier ending.”

I started looking for other reasons to dislike it.

Was the tragedy gratuitous, for example? I don’t like stories in which everything goes wrong at the end but there’s no reason for it to. When someone writes a story and concocts some wild coincidence to make everything turn out OK, it’s usually criticized for employing a deus ex machina. In our day a lot of stories concoct wild coincidences to make everything turn out badly, but for someone reason that’s rarely criticized.

In this particular episode, there was in fact one really unlikely coincidence that made everything go wrong, but apart from that the tragic circumstances were logical for the characters involved. It didn’t feel contrived enough to explain my antipathy.

I finally decided that what I didn’t like about the episode really was just the choice of the story. I think the show would have been stronger with a more upbeat turn of events.

So now I’ve been thinking … is it fair to say that some stories are inherently inferior to others? Even if they are presented with depth and skill?

My brother Dave would say so, I think. He believes that there are seven themes that keep turning up in the best art and literature. They are built into the character of God and the meaning of human existence.

I’m influenced by G. K. Chesterton’s view that even ugly things are beautiful when you look at them the right way. In some sense telling the truth about something makes it beautiful. (Isn’t that part of the point Ender makes in Speaker for the Dead?) Doesn’t that mean that every story is equally beautiful in its own way?

Yes, in a sense, but only if you set it within the right context. Only if you make it part of a bigger story that gives it meaning and beauty.

So when I say that this particular episode didn’t have a good story, I don’t mean that the story couldn’t be made into a thing of beauty by subsuming it within a larger story that gives it meaning. I mean that the story as it stands, without the backdrop against which to interpret it, is inherently inferior to what it could have been.

Does that make sense? I think so.

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Why is there evil?

One of the interesting philosophical questions about God is known as the Problem of Evil. The argument goes: If a) God is loving, b) God is all-knowing, and c) God is all-powerful then d) evil would not exist. Since evil does exist, there must not be a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God.

Typically, theists counter the Problem of Evil with the Greater Good Defense. God can permit evil, they say, as long as doing so is necessary for a greater good. The trick is to show why evil would be necessary for a greater good. You’d think an all-powerful, all-wise God could figure out a way to make things good with no evil.

For example, I believe the greater good is freedom. In order to create free creatures, I would argue, God must allow us to do evil. Yet a universe with evil and freedom is better than a universe with neither, so our good God created a universe in which evil exists, for the sake of freedom. It’s worth it to God ( and should be worth it to us) to have evil around if it allows freedom.

I said that in order to create free creatures, God must allow us to do evil. Doesn’t this contradict God’s being all-powerful? If God can do anything, then He can also create free beings who must always make the right choice, right?

No.Because that would be a contradiction in terms. Even though God is all-powerful, that does not mean He can do things that are logically impossible. He cannot create a square circle, for example, because there is no such thing. He cannot create a universe with freedom and no possibility of evil because there is no such thing. Or so I would argue.

Strict Calvinists believe that the greater good is God’s glory. In order to fully display His holiness, mercy, and justice, God had to create those who would rebel against Him (Romans 9:17-23).  A universe that glorifies God in that specific way and has some evil in it is better than a universe which does neither. It’s worth it to God (and should be worth it to us) to have evil around if it glorifies God.

The Calvinist answer sounds a little bit like a suggestion my students often make: that without evil, we wouldn’t learn to appreciate the good. I find this less convincing. It raises as many questions as it answers.

  • Why do we need to suffer in order to value good? Isn’t that inability itself a symptom of our hard-heartedness, our indifference to the good? If we were perfect, wouldn’t we be able to value good without suffering? Isn’t God able to?
  • Perhaps we need to know about the concept of evil to understand the concept of good, but why do we actually have to experience it? Does God need to experience evil to appreciate good?
  • There’s a difference between natural evil / suffering and moral evil / sin. If the point of evil is to teach us to value what is good, wouldn’t suffering have been enough? Wouldn’t it have been better for God to create a world in which people occasionally suffered but it was no one’s fault than a world in which people do what is wrong?
  • When we’ve experienced suffering once, is that enough? Does the memory of suffering help us appreciate the good from then on? Or do we have to suffer again and again throughout eternity?
  • Does how much we suffer affect what we can appreciate? If we only need a little suffering, why is there so much horrific suffering in the world? If we need great suffering for great joy, why do some of us get off so lightly?

Another answer many of my students gave was the Learning From Our Mistakes Defense. Here’s a quote from one student in a recent paper:

“If everything was good, everyone would be  perfect and no one would ever do anything wrong. The only way we learn is by experiencing. As a young child, you do not believe your parent when they tell you not to climb on something because you will fall and get hurt. You start believing them when you do fall and get hurt. If God never allowed evil into the world and allow us to be tempted, we would never learn the difference between good and bad.”

This can’t be right. The student seems to be saying that we need to learn the difference between good and bad in the sense of learning what to do. But that reduces the argument to: if we never did anything wrong, we could never learn not to do wrong. Of course, if we never did anything wrong, we wouldn’t need to learn not to do wrong, so I think the free will response makes more sense!

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Prayer

My philosophy book this semester featured an article with a dialog between a Christian and an atheist. Early in the dialog, they said this:

Miller: Gretchen, [may I] say a prayer for your speedy recovery?

Weirob: I think I’ll pass on that, Sam.

Miller: I know you’re not exactly a confirmed believer in God.

Weirob: It’s not just that. Suppose I were. Suppose I believed in your Christian God. Just how do you think a prayer would help? Do you think God doesn’t know that I have the flu and am miserable? … In fact, not only does he know that I am miserable, but he also knows that you would like to see me get better. So how in the world does a prayer help? You simply would be communicating to God what God already knows, thereby wasting God’s time and yours. Not to mention mine.

Sam responds by saying,

The true value of prayer would be its effect on us, not any effect on God. It would remind us that however bad you feel, however much you sneeze, however achy your limbs, however much your head hurts, we are in the hands of a loving, beneficent God. 

Sam! What are you saying!!?? Why did you give up on prayer so quickly? Prayer isn’t just a way for us to feel better; we Christians believe (or we ought to) that when we ask God for something it actually makes a difference. 

A much better way to answer Gretchen’s question is demonstrated by C. S. Lewis:

‘Praying for particular things’, said I, ‘always seems to me like advising God how to run the world. Wouldn’t it be wiser to suppose that He knows best?’ ‘On the same principle’, said he, ‘I suppose you never ask a man next to you to pass the salt, because God knows best whether you ought to have salt or not. And I suppose you never take an umbrella, because God knows best whether you ought to be wet or dry.’ ‘That’s quite different,’ I protested. ‘I don’t see why,’ said he. ‘The odd thing is that He should let us influence the course of events at all. But since He lets us do it in one way I don’t see why He shouldn’t let us do it in the other.’ 

Perry, J. (2010). Dialogue on Good, Evil, and the Existence of God. In Introduction to Philosophy (5th ed.). Oxford University Press.
Lewis, C. S. (1970). God in the Dock. Eerdmans.

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“It is harder to fight with pleasure than with anger”

Huh. Well, that’s interesting.

A few weeks ago I wrote this:

When I lived hopefully, though, I lost my ability to live a disciplined life. It was a dilemma. I could live hopefully and sloppily, or I could be determined and bitter. I could get lots of things done with a bad attitude or very little done with a cheerful heart.

This week I read part of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and discovered this:

… it is harder to fight with pleasure than with anger, to use Heraclitus’ phrase, but both art and virtue are always concerned with what is harder; for even the good is better when it is harder.

“It is harder to fight with pleasure than with anger”; i.e., when you’re feeling cheerful, you just aren’t all that motivated to fight.

Aristotle believed, though, that as we grow in virtue we begin to feel pleasure in doing whatever is right, even if it’s fighting. At first, we don’t want to fight, and so it takes anger to push us into it. Eventually we can learn to fight for nobler reasons, without needing anger to motivate.

So this is what happened to me: I needed to wage wars of self-discipline. I already knew how to fight with anger. I had to learn the harder skill of fighting with pleasure.

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Ethics and common sense

A few weeks ago a House episode featured a man who was giving away almost all his money to people who needed it more than he did. Although he was a multi-millionaire, his family ended up living on something like 25K a year. His wife took their child and left because she was frustrated that he wouldn’t prioritize his family over strangers. He argued that if other people needed the money more than he and his family did, it must be wrong for him not to give it to them instead. There seemed to be something wrong with his thinking, but it was hard to pin down what.

One of the characters suggested that when people are functioning in a healthy way, they care more about themselves and their own families than about other people. Is that true? Is it Christian? Something about it still seems wrong.

In our philosophy class this week a similar question came up. We were studying utilitarianism, which suggests (more or less) that if an action will increase happiness in the world, we are obligated to take it.Giving $100 of my money to feed a starving child in Africa is a good thing because he will get more happiness from it than I will lose by giving it away. But then isn’t it even better to give $200? And still better to give $300? Doesn’t it logically follow that I am obligated to keep giving money until everyone in the world has less need of it than I do? Again, there’s something wrong here.

The same kind of problem comes up in questions that have nothing to do with money or giving. At some point after I first became a Christian, I was about to watch a TV program and decided that it would be a better use of my time to read some Scripture and pray for a while. I had trouble justifying taking time out for entertainment after that. If reading the Bible is better than watching TV in general, then it is better than watching TV always, and so it’s never OK to watch TV.

The problem is that whenever we discover that doing A is better than doing B for a general reason, it seems logical to conclude that we should always choose A over B, even when a common-sense approach to morality would lead us to do A sometimes, but not every time.

How can we think about morality in a way that leaves room for common sense? The answer isn’t obvious to me, although I suspect Psalm 127:1-2 may hold a key.

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Is knowledge socially constructed?

An article I read for an education class I’m taking said that knowledge is socially constructed. In my written reflection, I said I was “not sure I want to say knowledge is socially constructed”. I’ve thought about it a little, and now I have more to say.

Disclaimer: I’m sure there is a philosophical context to this that I don’t know. In a couple of years, when I’ve learned more, I expect to look back on this post and be embarrassed by how ignorant I was of the real issue. If I waited until I understood things completely, though, I’d never blog anything! So here goes, based on my current halfway-complete understanding.

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What does it mean that “knowledge is socially constructed”?

Are the things we know socially constructed? Let’s take as an example, “I know that if I let go of this pencil, it will fall.” It seems to me that this is the kind of thing I could easily come to know completely independently of social factors, and that anyone in any culture would also come to know. I’m not sure what people really mean by saying knowledge is socially constructed though, so let’s take the possibilities one at a time.

1. Beliefs are socially constructed.

There is a difference between saying truth is socially constructed and saying knowledge is socially constructed. That something is true might be culturally independent, and still my realizing it and accepting it might be completely based on my culture.

Suppose we accept the traditional definition of knowledge, for example, as justified true belief: it must be true, I must believe it’s true, and I must have a reason for believing that it is true. Then even if it is true, independent of culture, that the pencil will fall, conceivably in a certain culture I would not have come to believe it. Maybe my culture doesn’t believe in natural laws, for example; it thinks that the pencil might randomly not fall next time.

If this is what people mean, I think it would be clearer to say “Beliefs are socially constructed”. That would make it clear just how social factors have an impact.

2. A lot of knowledge is socially constructed.

I am sure that some knowledge is socially constructed. In fact, I accept that there are some facts that I know that are themselves socially constructed (i.e., not just the knowledge of the facts, but the facts themselves). Rules of courtesy, for example, are largely a product of cultural conventions. So, for that matter, are the meanings of all our words. In turn, that means that many of the concepts we use to organize our experience mentally are socially constructed.

If this is what people mean, I’d rather they said “A lot of knowledge is socially constructed.”

3.  The way we organize and articulate our knowledge is socially constructed.

I am sure that some knowledge cannot be articulated without recourse to socially constructed conceptual frameworks. Even if I believe that the pencil will fall, I may not be able to speak of gravitational forces. Maybe knowing about gravity being a force requires a culture that has developed the concept of a force. In another culture, I would have to frame my beliefs about the pencil in other ways.

Nonetheless: even though particular conceptual frameworks may be culturally dependent, it seems likely to me that the general patterns into which some of our concepts fall are forced upon us by reality. Certain concepts may simply be the only good way there is to look at things. An alien mathematician would still have developed some concept of a circle, or of prime numbers, because these things are part of the way shapes and numbers work. The concept of force may very well be the only coherent way to frame our observations about things falling in a general way.

If this is what people mean, I think they should say, “The way we organize and articulate our knowledge is socially constructed.”

4. Knowledge of any subject is socially constructed.

We never know anything in isolation. If I know that “the pencil will fall” it implies I also know things like what a pencil is, and what falling is, and that we live in three dimensions. Every known fact is interwoven with a web of other facts. I am quite ready to accept that many of these other facts are socially constructed. That doesn’t mean that all knowledge is socially constructed, though – just that all knowledge is tied together with socially constructed knowledge.

In a way, I suspect this is what my education article meant. Educators aren’t concerned with our delivering isolated bits of knowledge, but with helping students to “know the subject”. It is this holistic sense that they have in mind when they say that knowledge is socially constructed.

In this case people should say, “Knowledge of any subject is to some degree socially constructed.”

5. The process of learning is socially constructed.

The process of learning, as a process, especially in a formal education setting, is social. Even independent study depends on the relationship of the learner to the books he reads, how his society defines the expert, and so on. So in that sense “knowledge is socially constructed”.

In this case, we should say, “The process of learning is socially constructed.”

This also may be what my education class meant.

As always, I welcome your comments/questions/corrections. Let’s construct some knowledge together. 🙂

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