From time to time, I discuss the problem of evil - or, The Problem of Evil - with my students.
This week, it was in the context of a special topics course on the Darwinian Revolution and its philosophical implications. Trying to bring them to some insight into pre-Darwinian ways of thinking, I had them read a few selections from Leibniz on the principle of plenitude - sorry, the Principle of Plenitude - and the Principle of Sufficient Reason, followed by the First Epistle of Alexander Pope's Essay on Man.
Two lines from Pope provide a deft summary of Leibniz, and help to solidify the idea of the Great Chain of Being.
That there is a continuous gradation of degrees of perfection in Being, "from Infinity to thee, from thee to Nothing", as Pope puts it, is the idea of the Great Chain of Being . . . about which more another time.
So, why does any particular thing exist, as opposed to something else? It is not necessary that it be so, in the technical sense that the non-existence of any particular thing (except God, to Leibniz' way of thinking) does not violate the principle of non-contradiction - er, the Principle . . . oh, never mind. Instead, things exist, and things happen, because there is Sufficient Reason for them to do so. In short, the kind of universe in which this particular thing exists or that particular event happens is more full, more perfect than the kind of universe in which it does not.
All of this is terribly, terribly medieval, full of the tropes and ideas of Scholastic philosophy: substances and degrees of perfection and existence as a predicate and so on. Still, the most basic idea has some staying power, and I see signs of it here and there in everyday talk about everyday things. The most basic idea is this: everything happens for a reason and, as Pope puts it, "whatever is, is right."
Enter the Problem of Natural Evil.
If the universe was crafted by an all-knowing, all-powerful, and benevolent God, if all is truly for the best in the best of all possible worlds, why do bad things keep happening to us?
Pope's response is, in effect, "Well, who the heck are we, that we should question the divine plan?"
Then, on November 1, 1755, a powerful earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal. Based on descriptions of the damage, seismologists have retroactively estimated its strength to measure as high as 9.0 on the Richter scale. The earthquake itself combined with fires and a tsunami to kill as many as 100,000 people in the Lisbon area alone, though it's hard to be sure of the precise number.
The catastrophe had serious intellectual consequences, bringing the problem of natural evil under sharp scrutiny. Voltaire reeled off an angry rebuttal to Pope's essay, which, among other things, spurred Rousseau to write a spirited letter in defense of divine Providence, which may have been one of the goads that prompted Voltaire to write Candide.
Part of the point of bringing this up in class was to contrast this older view with a more current view, shaped in part by Darwinian thinking, and by the natural sciences more generally: we live in the world we live in, and stuff just keeps on happening.
That's not the point I wanted to make here, however. Instead, I wanted to report an astonishing alignment of events.
The first time I spent an entire class session discussing Leibniz, Pope, Voltaire, Rousseau, and the problem of natural evil was September 10, 2001. On September 12, of course, my prior plans for class were shoved aside, and we discussed instead the problem of moral evil . . . along with a number of other things that were on our minds that day.
This past Tuesday, around the time I was teaching my class, an earthquake in the Pacific spawned a tsunami that, as of this writing, killed at least 89 people in Samoa and American Samoa. Barely 24 hours later, a major earthquake struck Indonesia, killing hundreds.
If I had the turn of mind for it, I could conclude from this that I have developed some freakish power to foresee terrible events while I am writing my course syllabi, even months in advance.
I might also conclude that I should stop planning to talk to students about the problem of evil. Or, if I do, perhaps I should alert the authorities ahead of time. But then, what if I change my plans while the semester is underway, and shift the discussion to the following week? It gets awfully complicated.
It's absurd, of course. Bad things happen all the time, lots of them, even if they aren't big or bad enough to make the news. More to the point, lots of bad things have happened on or just after days when I was not talking with classes about the problem of evil. The 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai took place over the Thanksgiving break, just before which one group of students was giving in-class presentations and another was discussing the question of whether monkeywrenching is ever justified as a form of political protest. Hmmm . . .
Anyway, the 2005 tsunami that killed a quarter of a million people took place during the winter break, so you certainly can't pin that one on me.
And, on the other side, I've spent a number of class sessions on Leibniz, Pope, and that lot, over the years, and I recall nothing really bad happening except in the two instances I mention, at least nothing that made the news. I made special note of this fact, with some relief, the first time I discussed the problem of evil after September 2001. (I got away with it!)
Why do I bring all this up? Well, the other day I was talking with my friend, the astrologer. He told me, in all earnestness, that he is preparing a scholarly presentation to his fellow astrologers concerning an astonishing alignment of events. I'm not sure precisely what he meant, but it would seem that Pluto is entering into the zero-degree of Capricorn . . . or something. This is an astrological event that occurs once every 250 years or so.
The last time it happened, he told me, was right around the year the Stamp Act was passed, which was a contributing cause of the American Revolution. The time before that was right around the year "Cardinal Wolsey" became, my friend said, "Regent" (in fact, a quick check of Wikipedia assures me, Henry VIII - every inch a king, no Regents need apply - appointed Thomas Wolsey to the post of Almoner in 1509, then made him High Chancellor in 1515; Wolsey didn't become Cardinal until 1514.) Anyway, my friend did accurately report that Wolsey made serious and far-reaching changes to taxation in England.
And now, as Pluto does its thing once more, we have President Obama in office, who is, as my friend put it, "shaking up the bureaucracy."
So, there you have it. Pluto doing whatever it's doing to Capricorn allows us to predict some kind of change in something related to taxation that will somehow have some sort of major political ramifications. So, brace yourselves!
Except that lots of consequential changes in taxation occurred when Pluto wasn't doing whatever it's doing to Capricorn, like the first introduction of a federal income tax in the United States in 1861. On the other side, Wolsey became Almoner some eight years after the date of the Pluto-Capricorn thing, and High Chancellor some five years after that. Is there a statute of limitations on this sort of thing?
It's a constant refrain where I work - lots of social scientists around - that correlation does not prove causality. Well, here's a corollary: coincidence doesn't prove correlation. In the case of Cardinal Wolsey, you have to kind of squint at the sequence of events just to see a coincidence. The mists of time help: what's eight years, give or take, in recounting events that occurred half a millennium ago?
We can always find the extraordinary if we are looking for it - and we humans do tend to look for it - so long as we are willing studiously to ignore the ordinary.