Performing Contradictions and the Problem of Evil

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I've been teaching an introductory philosophy course this semester with a new text for my God unit, Thinking About God by Greg Ganssle. It's designed to be usable for high school or introductory college/university courses, and it's just about the lowest level of detail that I would want to use for this course. I'm supplementing it some with other readings also, but it's nice to spend a lot of time just in one book after using lots of scattered readings in past versions of the course.

One thing that I found really interesting was in the section on the logical problem of evil. The logical problem of evil presents three traditional attributes of God (omnipotence, omniscience, and perfect goodness) and then seeks to derive a contradiction if you admit to the existence of evil (which pretty much all traditional theists will do, and thus it's a problem even if the person presenting the problem doesn't happen to believe in evil, because the theist does, and it's supposed to be a contradiction for theism). Now it so happens that hardly any philosopher today accepts the logical problem of evil as a good argument, for several reasons, but in the process of explaining why Ganssle hits on an interesting issue that I hadn't thought of before. One way some people have resisted theists' attempts to respond to the problem of evil might actually help the theist in surprising ways.

Responses to the logical problem of evil can involve explaining why a perfectly good, omniscient, omnipotent being would allow evil. For instance, free will is given as something important enough that God would want it, even if it means a fair amount of evil would be allowed. One kind of response to that (not taken seriously by most philosophers) is that if God is omnipotent then God should be able to give free will and also guarantee that people will freely do no evil. The standard response is that libertarian free will is incompatible with God guaranteeing what people will do, and God can't perform a contradiction, since contradictions are impossible. So God can't both give free will and guarantee what people will do, since guaranteeing what people will do violates free will. That would amount to performing a contradiction.

But isn't God omnipotent? Doesn't that mean God can do anything? The traditional answer is no. Rene Descartes is an extremely rare exception to the overwhelming consensus among theists that God cannot perform contradictions, because there is no such thing to be performed. Maybe you can define something called superomnipotence and then say that superomnipotent beings would be able to grant free will and then guarantee what people will do, but that's not the sort of thing theists hold to, because God is merely omnipotent. In fact, nothing could be superomnipotent anyway, and claiming that God is superomnipotent would already be claiming and impossibility.

What I found really interesting in Ganssle's discussion of this is that he thinks the superomnipotence objection to the problem of evil actually counts in the theist's behavior. What if the theist were to concede that God is superomnipotent? You might then think that God doesn't have a good reason for allowing evil anymore, since God could perform the contradiction to guarantee people's choices while maintaining their libertarian free will. But not so fast. Does God need a reason to allow evil if God is superomnipotent? Superomnipotence means God can perform contradictions. That means God can allow evil even if evil contradicts God's goodness, omnipotence, and omniscience. If you're going to allow contradictions with a superomnipotent being, then why is it at all problematic that God and evil contradict each other? This objection seems to fall flat if you allow God to be superomnipotent.

I had never considered that point before, and while I think Ganssle is right I do want to say one further thing. Once you allow contradictions, all logic goes out the window. Contradictions logically entail that every statement is true. So it's not going to be surprising if it turns out that the theist is not threatened anymore by the problem of evil, since every statement turns out to be true, including that one. But it's also going to be true that God is unjust and evil, since that's also going to be a statement, and every statement follows from contradictions. Once you allow contradictions you can prove that God doesn't exist just as much as you can prove that God is vindicated in allowing evil. In the end, I don't know if Ganssle's point establishes very much, since any statement follows as true once you allow contradictions. I do think it was an interesting observation, however. There's a reason hardly any philosopher has endorsed superomnipotence as a plausible interpretation of omnipotence. It's completely ridiculous to suppose that theists have ever meant that God can do something that makes God both exist and not exist, so omnipotence could never have meant that.

[cross-posted at Prosblogion and Philosophy et cetera]

12 Comments

If you'd like to do some reading on the history of the problem of evil, particularly focussing on how "Satan" functions in ideas about evil, I highly recommend the work of Jeffrey Burton Russell. His book The Prince of Darkness is a good summary of western ideas about evil throughout the centuries.

It's been a while since I read it, so I don't remember many of his specific points, but I found his discussion of the problem of evil very deep and stimulating.

I haven't seen many serious discussions of the problem of evil wrestle with the specific problems of evil being personified in a satan figure, Dostoevsky notwithstanding.

Well, there's Greg Boyd, but I'm not exactly going to recommend his approach. He thinks of God and Satan as being in this dualistic, nearly evenly matched conflict that God will somehow win (though how God knows this is unclear given that God doesn't know the future, and how it's guaranteed is unclear as well given that all human beings could have freely chosen to side with Satan, and one of the conditions of God winning is that people will be saved).

Alvin Plantinga has an interesting discussion of evil spiritual beings in relation to the problem of evil in God, Freedom, and Evil. After he presents the free will defense, he worries about kinds of evil that aren't explained by human free will. He then postulates that it's quite possible that all so-called natural evil is actually caused by free, evil spirits, and thus it's possible that the free will defense applies to every evil happening and not just acts of human will.

I've been a philosophy junky for a while, but am coming to religious phi pretty late in the game. So, am I right to infer from your post that there are variants of the argument from evil that are different from the logical argument from evil?

(I'm imagining something like the difference between the logical contradiction form of the categorical imperative and the practical contradiction form.)

Yes, there's the evidential problem of evil. The logical problem seeks to find a contradiction between the existence of God (where God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good) and the mere existence of evil. The evidential argument doesn't claim that the mere existence disproves God's existence, but it says that the amount, kinds, and level of evil in the world (or as Peter van Inwagen puts it, "the magnitude, duration, and distribution of evil") is bad enough to count as strong evidence against the existence of God. It's got a weaker conclusion with a stronger argument backing it up.

I don't think this is analogous to the practical contradiction form of the categorical imperative, and I'm not sure if there's an analogous argument for the problem of evil.

There's a man I know who has really been struggling with the problem of evil for some time. In particular, there's one biblical incident that really bothers him: the fact that the child born as a result of David's adultery with Bathsheba died on account of David's sin (2 Sam 12).

I've been wondering what sources to recommend to him. He's a smart guy--he has a PhD in mathematics--so he can handle technical reading matter. Any suggestions would be welcome.

It just so happens that the second edition of D.A. Carson's How Long, O Lord? has just been published. I reviewed the first edition here. I consider that book to be the best treatment of the problem of evil I've ever seen at a level that doesn't take any philosophical training. I'm not sure the philosophical stuff is really any better anyway, at least on the most important issues (and many of them don't deal with the kinds of things Carson does treat, such as working out a biblical theology of suffering as opposed to just proposing potential reasons why God would allow evil). I haven't had much chance to look at the second edition, since it just arrived yesterday, but I'm very much looking forward to it. I do think the resources in that book will be more helpful for that particular question than what I've read by any philosopher.

Good to see this realisation is getting out. I made this same point in a debate with an atheist about 15 years ago...maybe I shoulda written a book :)

FYI...it is interesting to hear that there are not a lot of philosophers out there who think the argument from evil is a good argument (Even though atheists spout it time and time again). I have even come across it in my philosophy course at uni.

One other argument that I think is overblown is the Euthryphro Dilemna, which is often used against Christian morality and/or morality needing God. In much the same way as the problem from evil, there are obvious answers, but this dilemna is standard fare in philosphy courses.

I didn't say that not a lot of philosophers think the argument from evil isn't a good argument. I said not very many think the logical problem of evil is a bad argument. A good number think the evidential argument from evil is a good argument.

I agree about the Euthyphro problem. Once the possibilities for going through the horns of the dilemma are pointed out, most people recognize the fallacy inherent in the argument. Now if only professional philosophers (at least the ones who don't read recent philosophy of religion papers) would acknowledge that...

Jeremy, Thanks for the tip on the Carson book.

Ah yes...sorry for the scope creep on your statement. Your response uses double negatives (wrongly I think), but I get the point. Your original statement was about the logical problem, not the evidential problem.

Yes, that's what I get for writing comments while wrestling with kids.

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