Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Logical Problem of Evil: Part 1

In the last post I discussed the Kālam Cosmological Argument. I will likely discuss it further at a later date, especially concerning some additional objections to it, but for now I’ll move on to an objection to theism. It’s not my primary aim in this blog to show that God exists. Rather, what I’d like to do, at least what I’d be perfectly satisfied with having done, is to show that it is rational to believe that God exists. Such an endeavor will require not only some defense of the grounds for (rational) theism, but also an attack on some objections to theism. It will not be surprising to anyone familiar with the question of God’s existence that the first issue to be discussed is the so-called “problem of evil”. This problem comes essentially in two forms.

                The first form is commonly called the logical problem of evil (or the deductive problem of evil). This is the view that the existence of evil or suffering is logically incompatible with the existence of God if God is defined as a being which exemplifies omnibenevolence, omniscience, and omnipotence. Its most famous formulation was made by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. Epicurus asks, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is not omnipotent. Is He able to prevent evil, but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both willing and able? Whence then is evil?”

                Epicurus, then, as well as all those who advocate the logical problem of evil, seems to think the following statements exhaust all logical possibilities:

1.       It is the case that God wishes to abolish evil, yet he is not able to do so.
2.       It is the case that God is able to abolish evil, yet he does not wish to do so.
3.       It is the case that no evil exists, and God exists.
4.       It is the case that evil exists, and God does not exist.

So then, a proponent of the logical problem of evil affirms that the following two statements cannot both be true:

5.       An omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient being exists.
6.       Evil exists.

Or said another way, it is alleged that an omniscient being has the ability to bring about any logically possible state of affairs, and an omnibenevolent being desires a state of affairs which does not include evil. If these two properties belong to the same being, and if such a being does in fact exist, then evil does not. Yet evil does obviously exist. Therefore it is impossible that a being exists which possesses these properties. Therefore God does not exist.

                It is my belief that the force of this argument is almost entirely emotional in nature, though it is presented as an intellectual argument. For consider what exactly is being claimed. The proponent of the logical problem of evil (LPE) is claiming that statements 5 and 6 above cannot both be true. He is saying they are at bottom logically impossible, like a triangular square or a married bachelor.

                How might a rational theist respond to this claim? If true, then theism is false, and it is hard to see how holding demonstrably false beliefs can be considered rational. I think there are several acceptable responses to the LPE, the first being to insist that its proponent state exactly where the logical contradiction is. After all, statements 5 and 6 above are not obviously logically contradictory, like a three-sided four-sided object, or a married unmarried person. And the typical response to this challenge is to allege that a benevolent being will prevent all evil, and that an omniscient being will be able to bring about any logically possible state of affairs. A state of affairs in which no evil exists is a logically possible state of affairs. So it follows that an omnipotent being will be able to bring it about, and moreover an omnibenevolent being will bring it about if it is able. Yet this state of affairs has clearly not been brought about, because evil does exist.

                But I think, upon further examination, that each of these claims is false. I don’t think it’s the case that a benevolent being would prevent all evil if it is able to do so, nor is it the case that an omnipotent being can actualize any logically possible state of affairs. My contentions will likely sound absurd and counter-intuitive. But consider: it is possible that freedom of the will exists. I think this will sound plausible to most people. If freedom of the will is understood as entailing un-coerced choices, then it follows that actions performed by creatures possessing free will must be un-coerced. Else, by definition, they are not free.  Now consider a simple example: Frank wishes to kill Joe. He purchases a pistol and goes to Joe’s house to perform the murder. Now suppose that God supernaturally intervenes and forces Frank to change his mind and walk back down the steps, throwing the pistol away. Was Frank’s failure to perform the murder brought about by Frank’s free choice? Clearly not. It was brought about by God’s choice. But if it is possible that free will exists, then it is possible that agents make un-coerced choices. And if it is possible that agents make un-coerced choices then God cannot bring it about via his omnipotence that free agents do not choose to perform evil acts. The possibility of the existence of free will defeats the contention that an omnipotent being can actualize any logically possible state of affairs, since it is a logically possible state of affairs that people freely choose good actions all the time, and yet an omnipotent being could never, by definition, actualize this state of affairs. This alone defeats the logical problem of evil as it relates to actions performed by human agents, so-called “moral evil.”

                But does the free will defense work when put against so-called “natural evils” like fires and natural disasters which cause suffering? Well, yes and no. It does not work to suggest that free human agency defeats the problem of natural evil, since free human agents do not cause natural phenomena to occur. Nevertheless, an interesting and devastating application of the free will defense has been offered by Alvin Plantinga to resolve the problem of natural evil, namely, it is possible that satanic or demonic free agents exist who do possess the ability to cause natural phenomena. It is quite tempting to, at this point, kindly ask the theist to remove his cranium from whichever bodily orifice encompasses it. What could be more absurd than to suggest invisible undetectable beings which control the weather and thereby absolve God of responsibility for natural evil? But this response is, as I said, emotional and not intellectual. It is not necessary to think that satanic control of nature is at all plausible, but it does remain logically possible, and that bare possibility is all that theism needs to defeat the problem of natural evil. Because if satanic beings (or some similar free agents) do possess the ability to bring about natural disasters, and God cannot coerce them into freely refraining from doing so, then it follows that God’s existence is logically compatible with natural evil. It seems, then, that based merely on a clarification of God’s omnipotence, the logical problem of evil is dissolved. The discussion of the LPE is much more extensive than I have time to summarize here, and there are good reasons to think that statement 6 above is also false. And of course there is the continuing evidential (or probabilistic) problem of evil. These will be the topic of upcoming posts.  

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