Explanations for Evil, Part I

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This is the the twenty-ninth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. The last post presented the evidential problem of evil, including five questions that deal with specific kinds or manifestations of evil thought by some to be evidence against the existence of God. This post begins a series of responses looking at answers to those five questions, starting with the first two.

A. The primary response to the logical problem of evil involves free actions of human beings. What about kinds of evil that aren’t the result of the free actions of human beings?

Two things have been suggested about what is sometimes called natural evil (i.e. evil not caused by human beings). Natural disasters, suffering in nature, and so on may not be the result of free human actions, but it’s possible that they are all the result of free beings. Alvin Plantinga has suggested that perhaps non-human, even non-physical, beings are responsible for all the evil that does not result from human choices. Some people might call these beings fallen angels or demons. Even if we do not consider that possibility likely, it remains a possibility that we cannot absolutely rule out. Should we believe that all such evil is caused by such beings? Probably not, but it remains enough of a possibility for theists that it means there is at least a possible explanation. If there is a possible alternative explanation for the existence of a kind of evil, then the claim that a good God would never be able to allow it seems wrong. There is at least one possible way that a good being would allow such things, and that is if other free creatures do it in a way that it would be wrong for God to stop them (thus mirroring the free human beings response to the logical problem of evil discussed in a previous post).

As it happens, most theists do not believe fallen angels or demons cause all natural evil such as the suffering from forest fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, or earthquakes. They might say something else, however. There seems to be no point to freedom if we cannot predict the consequences of our free actions at least to some degree. If I try to give someone a hug but cannot control my arms and end up giving them an uppercut to the jaw instead, that would be bad. For this reason we should expect a being like God to make the world in a way that is predictable and orderly. In other words, it should follow certain natural laws. These regularities would allow us to predict the consequences of our actions, thus allowing our choices to be genuinely free. However, they also might generate natural processes that lead to landslides, tornadoes, and floods.

It might be that natural evil is just the result of natural processes. It so happens that most people believe so anyway. But the point here is that a being like God should be expected to consider those natural processes to be crucial to free action, and thus we would expect God to allow them and their negative consequences because not allowing the world to be predictable and regular in its processes would have even worse consequences.

B. God might allow free human beings to make evil choices, but why wouldn’t God immediately restore things to the way they were so that the world would not continue to contain evil? That would seem to be the most obvious way to prevent as much evil as possible without violating people’s freedom. The choice would be allowed, but its negative effects would never arise.

Several difficulties arise when you think more fully about such a situation. For one thing, it would make God a deceiver. How could things be restored immediately if people could still remember what happened? So God would have to changed their memories, deceiving them about what happened. Would a good being do that? Some think not.

Second, it seems to count against freedom. If people freely choose to do evil, then what is God doing by wiping out the effects and memories of that choice? In effect, God allows them to think they are choosing, but such an act would remove the person’s ability to choose to do exactly that thing. The thing the person chose to do was not just the initial act but what it would be reasonable to expect it to lead to. If God prevents that, it seems unfree.

Third, wiping out the effects of people’s actions might bring things back to how they were before the first free choice to do evil, but it could happen all over again just as easily. If it is possible that allowing the consequences of evil to remain would eventually serve the purpose of preventing people from doing evil in the future, then it might be worth allowing evil and its consequences for a time in the light of the future that God will eventually move toward when people will not do such things and will freely choose not to do such things.

It might be worth mentioning here also that the idea of an afterlife also might minimize this objection to some degree. The evil we face is surely bad, but it is temporary. Eventually this life is over. If there is an afterlife, as many theists believe, then God might be more inclined to allow evil to go on for some time to achieve certain effects, and it might be worth it in the long run. After all, an eternity without end of no evil might count very strongly in favor of a situation that allows some evil if you contrast it with an eternity that does not guarantee the removal of evil at all.

Next: Questions C and D

11 Comments

'It so happens that most people believe so anyway. But the point here is that a being like God should be expected to consider those natural processes to be crucial to free action, and thus we would expect God to allow them and their negative consequences because not allowing the world to be predictable and regular in its processes would have even worse consequences.'

Does this mean that we can predict that dead people stay dead?

When the resurrected Jesus walked the earth, replete with its tornadoes, earthquakes, predators and diseases, was he immune from any negative consequences? (Such negative consequences being *crucial* to his free actions)

If a physical being can walk the Earth,immune to any natural disasters, why does God allow natural disasters to kill so many physical beings?

This is totally a side point (I think), but I was just thinking about the trend in recent years, as an outgrowth of the environmental movement, to blame "natural" disasters on human causes. Specifically I was thinking that perhaps this has something to do with a sort of psychological discomfort with unexplained evil. Mustn't there be someone to blame when an evil occurs?

One possible objection to the view of natural evil as an unavoidable consequence of regular laws of nature is that God himself created such laws. One would have thought that an omnipotent being could create laws that produced a predictable environment without such disasters: regular seasons without hurricanes, plate tectonics without earthquakes, etc. And these natural disasters are probably not the worst: diseases cause more suffering, even if they grab less media attention. Some diseases are self-inflicted, such as most cases of STDs and perhaps diseases caused by bad diet and lifestyle, but most are not. Our vulnerability to all sorts of viruses, bacteria, and degenerative diseases does not seem to be required for the predictability of our environment. Our immune system could be stronger even if the nasty viruses etc. were necessary.

The idea that happiness in the afterlife will be enhanced by a costly earthly journey is certainly appealing, but it raises other questions. If ‘the primary response to the logical problem of evil involves free actions of human beings,’ how is God going to guarantee that things won’t go wrong again in the afterlife? Does the free will argument not imply some strange conception of heaven? Will people have free will there? If yes it looks as though it ought to be possible to have free will while ruling out evil on earth after all.

One possible objection to the view of natural evil as an unavoidable consequence of regular laws of nature is that God himself created such laws. One would have thought that an omnipotent being could create laws that produced a predictable environment without such disasters

William Rowe and others say exactly that sort of thing. William Alston has a response, which I think is part of the next post, so I'll come to that.

I think one thing can be said about the immune system point. It's true that our immune system could be stronger, but too strong an immune system isn't exactly a good thing. It means allergies to all sorts of things that aren't really harmful. Also, to defeat most of the really bad diseases our immune systems would have to be so strong that we probably would be unable to retain the good microorganisms.

It's also possible that all the microorganisms were good at one point and have mutated, and God has allowed the bad mutations in order to suit various purposes, many of which I've been talking about in general terms (e.g. so that we realize our dependence on God, so we realize how bad out situation really is, so we'll be motivated to turn to God for help). It's easy to say that something could cause less pain, but is it easy to say that that's necessarily good? If there's a reason for the greater suffering, then the mere fact that there could be less tells us nothing.

Your second comment is a difficulty for libertarianism, isn't it? There always seems to be that possibility. People who think God can know what people will do under certain circumstances can avoid that result, but I've already explained why I don't think libertarians can get away with that. I think you need compatibilism for that result, which means you need to treat the free will defense the way I did rather than the way it's usually presented. So I pretty much agree with your point.

There might be some ways to get away with this without being a compatibilist about causal determinism. I think Augustine tries to do that. I'm not ultimately sure if his view works out, because I can't quite figure out what it is. He seems to say several things that are at odds with each other. He seems to me to be a compatibilist about freedom and being caused to do something, but it's only because his sense of what counts as a cause is much broader than modern philosophers would usually think. He thinks Stoic determinism wouldn't be compatible with freedom. I mention this because I'm not sure if something like libertarianism in some ways might work, but the standard libertarianism I'm aware of in the contemporary literature seems to me to end up with the difficulty you're identifying.

Jeremy, let’s see whether I understand your treatment of the free will defence. It seems to go like this. If the libertarian view of free will is correct then evil is unavoidable even for an omnipotent being. Now even if one thinks the libertarian view is implausible (as I, that is, you, think it is) the mere possibility that it is correct dispels the logical problem of evil.

Now could the libertarian problem be solved by assuming that the redeemed accesses heaven by committing one last act of free will, forgoing free will once and for all?

That sounds right about my view of the free will response in particular, but the other thing I wanted to say is that the free will response shows the kind of response that will do in general. That means any kind of explanation for why it might be wrong to disallow a certain kind of evil would do. Since I can't rule out such explanations, the logical problem fails to prove the contradiction. Such a proof would require ruling out any such explanations, and that seems to me to be possible.

Now could the libertarian problem be solved by assuming that the redeemed accesses heaven by committing one last act of free will, forgoing free will once and for all?

Oh, of course. But I don't think most libertarians want to say that people have no freedom in the afterlife.

A minor thought. It would seem to me that an all powerful God would be able to create a set of natural rules in which no "natural evil" occured. Since natural proccesses would be created and defined by God, He must have purposefully created "natural evil." Not only that, but God has the power to change this at any time.
To even acknowledge that "natural evils" occur is to that say that they were designed by God, or that God is limited in his ability to creat and/or design the universe. Either God was unable to avoid "natural evils" or he planned them, both put an unpleasant veiw on God.

I think you're assuming that the inability is some non-logical inability. It may well be that no logically possible set of natural laws allows for both the predictability of one's actions (and their consequences) and no possibility of finite beings not using that ability. Once you allow for evil from human actions, it may well be that the only or best way for a good and omnipotent being to respond is to allow for ineffectiveness in whatever faculty leads to people's avoiding the potentially bad consequences of natural evil. In some cases, it might be punishment. In others, it might just be showing the inadequacy of life lived in rebellion against goodness. It's pretty clear, however, that there could be reasons God would allow natural evil given the existence of human-intended evil. And this is ignoring the possibility that all natural evil is caused by non-human free creatures, which I wouldn't rule out.

You seem to think that God would not intervene to prevent natural disasters because this would interfere with natural laws. If this were true then He wouldn't violate this rule and intervene to work miracles or reveal himself through prophets as almost every theist believes he does. You can't have it both ways.

You seem to think that God would not intervene to prevent natural disasters because this would interfere with natural laws.

That's not what I said. What I said is that God would want to have natural laws to govern the universe so that people could predict the consequences of their actions and that it would be contrary to the purpose of natural laws if God intervened every time they led to bad consequences. No one would be able to predict the consequences of their actions, and no one would be able to choose to do anything wrong, because you can't choose something that you know isn't going to happen.

I never said that there could be no intervention. I'm also not sure why you think it would take contravening a natural law to work a miracle or to speak through a prophet. Why couldn't God use natural laws to work miracles and speak through prophets?

Miracles (of one sort) seem to be a violation of what we take to be the laws of physics. Not all miracles are like this, since some miracles are just unlikely events that we shouldn't expect and should be surprised at but are possible, and we then take it to be likely that God orchestrated the unlikely occurrence. Some miracles do seem to violate the laws of physics. But natural laws would be broader than physical laws, and the physical laws might govern physical objects unless some higher natural law trumps them. So the kind of miracle that goes against physical laws need not go against natural laws. Also, a miracle could be something that just seems to go against what we take to be the laws of physics. We may just have a poor enough understanding of the physical laws to understand how the more fundamental laws do govern whatever we took to break the physical laws.

Finally, prophetic revelations could easily be the result of God's guidance of natural events to bring someone to understand a message to speak or to have someone experience a vision to present to others. Why should that sort of thing require a breaking of even the laws of physics, never mind a broader set of natural laws? Only an impoverished view of what natural laws might be and how they might work could generate the difficulty you're trying to raise.

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