Against the Logical Problem of Evil

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This is the the twenty-seventh 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 looked at the logical problem of evil, which seeks to show a contradiction between the existence of God and the existence of evil. This post now moves to responses to that argument.

The logical problem of evil makes one assumption that theists might not want to give up on so easily. A perfectly good being would in general want to oppose evil, and couldn't an omnipotent and omniscient being could do anything to stop such evil? Actually, the answer isn't so clear. An omnipotent and omniscient being could do anything possible. There are limits to omnipotence. They are not physical limits. They are logical limits. An omnipotent being could not make contradictions true or make square circles. Those are not actions that could be done, and thus a being that can do anything possible could not do them. This is not a real limitation, since there is no such action to be done, and thus God could still be able to do any coherent action.

(One reason why it makes little sense to say that God can do anything is that God would then be able to make true contradictions. If so, then the contradiction between God and evil would not be a problem. God can make contradictions, and thus that contradiction would not be a difficulty for theism. So it is not in the best interests of the person presenting the problem of evil to require that sort of thing of an omnipotent being. For more on this issue, see here and the discussions also at the two cross-posted locations of the same post at Prosblogion and Philosophy et cetera.)

Now it may be true that you can put a coherent description to the following action: God stops the existence of all evil. But that is coherent only if you grant a few things. One way to stop the existence of all evil is not to create. Presumably creating other beings is a good thing, however. Is the world better off with created beings than it is without them? Is it a good action on God's part to create? Most people tend to say yes. But it also seems coherent to describe God as creating in such a way that no one ever does anything wrong. If God could create beings, and those beings could turn out to be perfectly moral beings 100% of the time, then there would be no evil (it would seem). Could an omnipotent being make such a situation the case?

The answer is yes. An omnipotent being could guarantee that created beings would do no wrong. But think about what this would involve. This would mean setting things up from the beginning so that any choices people would make would all move in the direction of good. Many people would not consider that to be freedom. Is freedom of this sort a good thing? Many say yes. In fact, many people think it would be immoral to make people like us but then force us to act a certain way. Would a perfectly good being do that?

If not, then the logical problem of evil is defeated. If a perfectly good being would not do such a thing, then it matters little how powerful the perfectly good being is. Even if this being could stop all evil, perfect goodness would not allow it. Thus the combination of perfect goodness with omniscience and omnipotence prevents something that a merely omnipotent and omniscient being could easily do. It turns out, then, that an omnipotent and omniscient being could prevent evil but only as long as this being is not perfectly good. It is impossible for even an all-powerful being to create free human beings while guaranteeing that they do no wrong, if this line of argument is correct.

It is important to notice also that the line of argument does not even really need to be correct. All that matters is that it is possible. Is it possible that a perfectly good being would not do everything possible to prevent evil? We just looked at one account of why a perfectly good being might allow evil. It may not be the only one. It may not be the correct one. But it shows that one is possible, and if it is possible then the argument (i.e. the logical problem of evil) fails. The argument claims that a being with these three traditional features of God would not allow any evil. If it is possible that such a being would allow evil, then the argument's conclusion is simply false. Such a being might allow evil, and it may be because there might be good reasons to allow evil. Therefore, there is no real contradiction between the existence of God (in the traditional sense) and the existence of evil.

Next up: the evidential problem of evil

10 Comments

"In fact, many people think it would be immoral to make people like us but then force us to act a certain way."

Do those people think it is immoral of police (say) to restrain a violent offender? Presumably not, but then why is God not permitted to offer us similar protection? What's the relevant difference?

Besides, any omnipotent being who really cared about human freedom would rid the world of addictions, mental illness etc. (See here for more detail.)

And if some people are naturally aggressive or even sadistic, how does that make them any more "free" than if God had created them with naturally more virtuous characters? (If anything, I think that morally perfect beings would be a whole lot *more* free than most of us are. Our moral flaws obstruct our true freedom, they don't enable it.)

Granted, it's *possible* that I'm wrong about all this, in the epistemic sense that I'm not dogmatically certain. But of course that's not the sort of possibility that allows you to dodge the logical problem of evil. You require that there be a genuinely logically possible world where all this stuff happens. And I don't see any reason at all to grant that positive possibility.

Finally, I think the problem can be more simply stated as this: a good God would create the best possible world (or, if there is no uniquely best possible world, he would create a world of minimal evil and extraordinary goodness; including no addictions, mental illness, sadistic dispositions, etc.). It's clear that ours is not such a world. So a good God must not actually exist.

Since I'm a compatibilist about freedom and determinism, I don't happen to think this explanation is correct. But what it does is show what sort of response can respond to the problem. If there's something that an omnipotent being could do that a perfectly good being wouldn't do, then there's no contradiction if preventing evil requires doing something like that.

It's not so much that this is a logical possibility and avoids the contradiction. It's that it's of the form that seems to me to be a serious contender for a logical possibility, whether this instance of the form is possible or not. For all I know, it is possible. But I'm more confident that something of the right form is possible than I am that this particular explanation is possible.

Some of the best possible world stuff is going to have to wait until later posts on the evidential argument, but one problem with that argument has to do with vagueness. If there isn't a best possible world because it could always be getting better, as Aquinas in one place says, then it doesn't make much sense to say that God would have an obligation to actualize the best possible world. Such a description doesn't match up to any world.

I hesitate at your claim that it's clear that we're not in the best possible world, unless it's because of the above reasons to do with vagueness. I don't think the things you cite make it clear that this world is not the best possible world, anyway, because if there is a good explanation for why they exist then their existence might be compatible with this being the best world. I do think those things count as evidence that we're not in the best possible world, but that's a far cry from its being clear that we're not in such a world, and the weaker claim moves us into the evidential problem rather than the logical problem. So, as with some of these other issues, I think this is better dealt with in the context of the responses to the evidential argument.

Should there be some distinction made in this argument between the continuing/present existence of evil and the origin of evil?

Also, I wonder how evil is normally defined within these sorts of debates. It is beyond my imaginative powers to come up with some sort of way of conceiving of evil outside of creation as it exists.

Also, I wonder how logically tight is the argument that god forcing people to act in a certain way is immoral. Don't we believe that god causes us to act in certain ways already? For example, he does not allow humans to fly unaided like birds.

Just some thoughts.

You might eventually consider them as two separate issues, but the logical problem of evil needs no such distinction. Its claim is that there mere existence of evil at all disproves God's existence. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about the origin of evil or the continuing presence of evil in the world.

When we come to the evidential problem, the distinction does become important, because the argument takes the existence of evil in all its forms to be overwhelming evidence against God's existence, and one part of the general response given to that argument is to offer potential explanations for different kinds of facts about the existence of evil, to show that God's existence is compatible with the amount, kinds, duration, extent, etc. of evil.

The problem of evil is a reductio ad absurdum argumenbt it uses the views of the theist to undermine theism. What matters is that theists believe that things are not the way they ought to be in the universe. That is all that is needed. However you define what evil is, it's something short of the ideal. If God's existence as an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being is incompatible with the world's being short of the ideal in whatever way the world actually is short of the ideal, then there is no such being. I'm not sure if that answers your question, but it doesn't seem to me that it really matters what you mean by calling something evil, as long as the theist accepts that it is that way and that it's the sort of thing that, other things being equal, a perfectly good being might not want.

On the issue of freedom, I'm with you and Jonathan on that. I don't see how a Calvinist can use the free will defense here in anything like the way that Plantinga does, since he endorses at least the claims I've presented as true (although many of the things he further says are merely epistemically possible). But I've explained the role I think this plays in my own thinking in my comment above to Jonathan.

I should add one more thing as a response to Jonathan that I forgot to mention before. It doesn't actually matter to the theist's defense that something is merely epistemically possible. Epistemic possibility means that for all I know something might be true. But if for all I know it's true, and its truth means God's existence is compatible with evil, then for all I know God's existence is compatible with evil. Isn't that all the theist needs? The argument claims that God's existence and the existence lead to a contradiction. If the theist has a response that allows for us to say that we can't be sure that it leads to a contradiction, then the logical problem of evil is defeated enough as far as I'm concerned. The evidential problem will still kick in and say that evil is very strong evidence against God, even if it's not proof of an actual inconsistency, but then we're no longer dealing with the logical problem, and again we have to save that issue for the posts on the evidential problem. So again I put it off for later in the series, but I think I'm well within my epistemic rights to do so.

I suppose I was just thinking that if the nature is evil is not well defined it is difficult to be very precise in how this argument goes. Evil is obviously not a physical substance like water, so perhaps it is a category problem when the accusation is made that God made evil in the world.

I realize that if evil is defined, for example, as an adverse set of relationships within the created order, one can still say that those relationships still fall under god's purview, but there are potentially an unlimited number of ways to define evil, and perhaps one of those would function in a way as to defeat the reductio ad absurdum.

I'm sure some people have probably delved into that matter, but I'm not well read on this stuff.

Just as an aside, this reductio ad absurdum argument is a very *successful* argument in that I have seen lots of people use it as an indication of why they do not or no longer believe in god.

I don't think most people's use of the problem of evil is the logical problem. I think most of them just see the actual extent and kinds of evil as very strong evidence against God. I'm not sure very many people think the mere existence of any evil is absolutely incompatible with God's existence. This argument really does make a very strong claim, one that few philosophers believe nowadays. For a lot of people, it's not as if this is a purely intellectual issue anyway.

There are two problems of evil, one of which is not part of what I'm talking about. Augustine thought he needed an explanation of what evil was caused by if God didn't cause it, and of course God couldn't cause it because complete good can't cause evil. His answer is that God didn't cause anything positive when evil came into existence, because evil doesn't positively exist. There's just good, and then there's less good. There's no positive evil, just lack of a good. God, then, isn't responsible for generating any positive thing that is evil.

That's not the issue I'm talking about. Augustine saw the issues as distinct, because he goes on to give responses to this problem too. Even if evil is just a lack, and it's not a positive thing to have been caused, there still ought to be an explanation of why God would allow things to diminish from the ideal state they were initially in if nothing was evil at the outset.

'An omnipotent being could guarantee that created beings would do no wrong. But think about what this would involve. This would mean setting things up from the beginning so that any choices people would make would all move in the direction of good.'

When God created the angels Gabriel, Michael and all the other angels that did not rebel, could He give a guarantee that they would never go wrong?

Were they not also free?

To me it seems like evil creates two interesting theistic possibilities.

1) god doesn't want the world to be entirely free of bad things
A) therefore he is not omnibenevolent
B) he is not a concequentialist or omnipotent in the strong sense of the word
2) all things exist, eg the 10 dimensions model (except multiple gods!)

2 Is actually pretty robust can fit with both the best science has to offer AND theism regarding a god with the three O's.

I do understand all of your opinions, but
I think you make the problem way harder than it
actually is.

To me it seems that God is indeed omnipotent, omniscient and pure good and because of these things
there is also evil.

God is good and omnipotent and will vanquish all
evil from this world. I even think he might be doing so right now. Isn't there something like the greater good we need to keep in mind?

Maybe there is evil now, but it is the only way to
get rid of all the evil once in a (maybe very distant, maybe very nearby) day in the future.

He is omnipotent, but that doesn't mean that he can do anything in a second. Over all even to create the world he needed 7 days...

You're not getting to the central issue. The claim is that a perfectly good being wouldn't even allow evil to begin with, and thus there should be no evil to do away with. Your response says nothing against such a claim, and therefore I did need to say more in order to resist the argument.

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