Between Isness and Oughtness

Contemporary atheists have resurrected an old idea.  The problem of evil, they argue, is a veritable proof for the non-existence of God.  This may be so, but who told them that evil was a problem?

The “problem of evil” is simply this: the world as-it-is seems to fall far short of the world as-it-ought-to-be.  Things happen that should not happen; things that should happen do not happen.  But there is more to the problem than the objective reality of the world, i.e., our own capacity to recognize it as falling short of the ideal.  We are dissatisfied not simply because the world is the-way-it-is, but more importantly because we are able to imagine it the way-it-ought-to-be.  What brings the “problem of evil” into existence is the fact that we distinguish between “good” and “evil,” that we are capable of imagining the alternative to what is already the case.

This indicates that to understand the “problem of evil” attention needs to be focused inwards rather than outwards, on our own subjective reactions rather on the objective conditions.

This much is clear.  If we could not imagine something better, we would not be able to feel dissatisfied.  If we didn’t feel dissatisfied, there would be no “problem of evil.”  The dissatisfaction that we feel, however, can lead us into one of two directions, i.e., into the despair of meaninglessness or into the affirmation of a higher meaning.  Contemporary atheists have chosen the former, but this choice is not inevitable; it is, after all, a choice.

The “problem of evil” shows, first of all, that humans are capable of exercising a profound moral imagination, that they have the capacity to judge actions and events as desirable or undesirable.  They experience, in other words, a gap between reality-as-such and reality-as-morally-perfect.  The question, then, is not so much what this gap says about the existence or non-existence of God, but what is it in us that makes us discern that gap in the first place.

It is doubtful that we would have experienced the gap between isness and oughtness if we didn’t have symbolic language.  The latter allows us not only to describe what is happening but also to think about what should have happened, what ought to have happened, what could have happened, what must happen, what might happen, and so on.  Living beings who do not have a symbolic language that allows them to imagine other-than-what-is-the-case do not seem to experience oughtness; they only experience what is already true.  Without experiencing the world of oughtness, all they have access to is the realm of isness; as such, the “problem of evil” does not exist for beings who do not have symbolic language.

To use the colorful words of Shel Silverstein, the suffering of “coulda, woulda, shoulda” seems to be an experience limited to the human race.  Of course, animals other than Homo sapiens do feel pain, but do they also suffer from the thought that tells them they shouldn’t be feeling pain?  When an ordinary domestic cat sees a pure-bred Persian cat, does she suffer from pangs of racial inferiority?  When a small mouse looks at a large mouse, does he suffer emotionally from the realization of his own relative weakness?  When a male lion loses all his female companions to a younger, stronger lion, does he feel like cursing the universe for its gross unfairness?  The answer to these questions, while not directly knowable, is probably in the negative.

If it is the awareness of oughtness, mediated through symbolic language, that makes us dissatisfied with isness, should we seek a way out of the resulting suffering?  Should we disregard the advantages of having a symbolic language and, instead, strive to revert back to a pre-language stage when everything was experienced as such, without judgments of good or bad?  Should we cultivate a state in which there is no distinction between what-is and what-ought-to-be?  At one level, the answer is indeed “yes.”  It is often to our advantage to experience whatever is already the case without the interference of language, which only introduces labels and judgments and thereby creates a gap between isness and oughtness.

At another level, however, this gap is of immense significance.  It is a gift to be cherished, to be thankful for.  Our perception of the gap is not simply the result of the symbolic language we use,  it is also a sign that we have a moral compass within us.  To discern unfairness, injustice, and cruelty in any form, anywhere in the world, and to feel a deep sense of dissatisfaction as well as a powerful desire for things to be otherwise, signify the presence of something very special within us.  Next time you feel angry when you see a gross injustice, say “thanks” to whoever you believe gave you the sense to recognize an injustice as such.

Furthermore, who wants to live in a world where everything is exactly as it ought to be?  A world in which isness coincides with oughtness is a world of moral perfection.  In a morally perfect world, there is absolutely nothing for a morally conscious being to do.  In a world already perfect, there is nothing better to be imagined, no higher goal towards which to strive, no dreams to be pursued.  A perfect world does not degenerate, nor does it improve; it merely stands still.  There is no change in such a world, at least no consciously conceived and deliberately planned change.  Since there is nothing to do, there is no purpose or meaning either; there is no evolution, no growth.  Thank God we don’t live in a perfect world!

As for contemporary atheists, they may want to ponder the following paradox: In a morally imperfect world, they have failed to find any inherent meaning; but in a morally perfect world, with nothing at all to do, they are also going to find a similar lack of meaning.  In fact, in the present, imperfect world they have found themselves a meaningful vocation, i.e., to investigate and explain why the “problem of evil” proves the non-existence of God.  In a morally perfect world, they would have no such luxury.

Does this mean that the perfect is imperfect, and the imperfect is perfect?

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