Residents of Florida’s Gulf Coast (where I live) have woken up on Saturday morning to find their prayers answered, as Hurricane Dorian’s projected path has taken a sharp right turn. Fervent prayers from Florida’s northern Atlantic coast, on the other hand, are apparently still stuck in limbo.
Those sentences are an expression of theodicy, “the justice of God,” or the conjecture of why good and bad things happen in this world. The 18th century German polymath Gottfried Leibniz coined this word from the Greek to express his view of why, philosophically and mathematically (he was a co-discoverer of calculus), we are living in “the best of possible worlds.” 
Even for those who profess no religion, it is when the manure in life is about to hit the fan that we are most likely to reach back through our cultural and religious roots to find the language to talk about one of the “big questions”: “Why did this happen?” And sometimes this is where our inner ugliness get revealed.
Perhaps you pray, as one famous religious leader publicly did, (and millions recently did more privately) to ask God to cause the hurricane to turn away from your city (and, by implication, hit someone else instead). Or (same guy), wish that it hit an LGBTQ celebration at a major amusement park. Or on the other side of the political spectrum, hope that this most recent hurricane hits President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. All three of these share the theodicy that natural disasters are at the whim of a vengeful creator. Through these images we regress back to our earliest human attempts at “God language” to explain natural events like thunder (such as Thor riding through the storm on his chariot) or the pain of pregnancy (to punish Eve’s “sin” as proclaimed in Genesis).
More compassionate folk are likely praying hard right now for the minimization of the inevitable human suffering that will accompany a major storm like this. The intention is good, but if there is an impact of those prayers, the difficult theological questions remain: Why do you get spared? Why now? And why didn’t this happen over the Bahamas?
Non-theistic people, even those who know how hurricanes “work,” still often struggle with what to say in situations like this. “You know, climate change has likely increased the intensity of many tropical storms” is not going to cut it at a funeral of a storm victim, no matter how accurate that statement is. Like most people in my experience, I have a hard time myself “finding the words” at these difficult times that have any more profundity than a good Hallmark card.
Wishes, hopes, and fears
I reached my own epiphany several years ago in realizing that the purpose of these “theodicy” expressions like “Why does this happen?” is usually not an “explanation” at all. Rather these are just normal folks like me using the best language at their disposal to say things like:
“I really wish…” or
“I really hope…” (a notch above simple wishing), or
“I really fear…”
That “fear” question is likely at the heart of a lot of the worst expressions. My fellow humans too often fear people who don’t look like them, or who have different cultural practices, or don’t speak their language. I trace this back to what I call “the first ethical dilemma,” when our hunter-gatherer forebears had to make the life-or-death decision of whether to trust or instead kill the strangers encroaching on their territory. Religion itself likely began with the human realization of the greatest theodicy-related fear of all, our own mortality.
I may not agree with all the religious and non-religious expressions even of the people who are closest to me. But my own best explanations are also likely insufficient, and perhaps even sacrilegious in their eyes. So, I try to listen instead for those three questions above, whether expressed in the language of badly quoted scripture, or of Shakespeare, or from Bart Simpson.
The probabilistic God
And so, you get some of my theodicy here anyway.
Regardless how you cast the creative power of the universe, from the familiar Abrahamic God to Spinoza’s and Einstein’s “natural God” to Richard Dawkin’s “no God,” humans have quite accurately explained many angst-inducing events in the language of science and mathematics, particularly probability and statistics in this case, and the psychological language of volition (or its heavier-baggage synonyms of free will and choice).
A “by the book” safe driver dying in a traffic accident on a clear, dry day is a really rare, but possible, event; a rainy-night crash by a person under the influence is not, with a difference of probability in the range of three orders of magnitude (powers of ten). This is partly random chance but also partly our apparent human ability to “tweak the odds” of some of these types of events happening (like not speeding), just like a professional baseball player can improve his chances of hitting the baseball (but only up to about one-third of the time).
This hurricane, like all others, has its own ever-changing “cone of probability” based on petabytes of historical data and a dozen mathematical models, but there is little I can do right now to change it. And if you believe in Laplace’s demon, named after the 19th-century French mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace, this hurricane is going to go where it is going to go, and the apparent probabilistic randomness in the path is more a mathematical expression of our current level of ignorance of weather. That philosophy is called determinism, and it is worth its own discussion.
But we likely could “tweak the odds” of future global climate change and future hurricane damage if we really wished and hoped and took corrective action, even if only to make people safer in their homes. I can both accept the inevitable and hope for the future at the same time.
As another example, we can clearly “tweak the odds” of communicable diseases spreading but we are badly failing through poor collective understanding of the “math of herd immunity,” and political gullibility. And so, if a child dies of measles in 2019, perhaps anger at anti-vaxers is a more appropriate expression of my theodicy than “blaming God.”
Likewise, gun violence. We can get lost trying to find “the cause,” but we certainly can “tweak the odds” of future events happening and their severity. We know this because other countries do this all the time. You can blame God or Satan if you wish, but I choose to blame the feckless Senators who are bribed by gun lobbyists to spout meaningless platitudes about “rights” while schoolchildren die.
I now have to decide whether to “tweak the odds” of Hurricane Dorian and potential damage by putting on my hurricane shutters. Life is, more than we care to think about, a bet on the odds and an apparently-probabilistic God.
A follow-up look at the theodicy of gun violence has now been posted.
The incomparable Dusty Springfield singing Bacharach/David’s “Wishin’ and Hopin'” (1964):
- The theodicy of Leibniz had a lot to do with visualizing curves of “good possibilities” and “evil possibilities,” and evaluating their maximum and minimum points. Thus, the calculus requirement that you avoided in school.
Prior More in the queue…