Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Logical Problem of Evil: Part 2

In the last post, I gave a brief overview of the logical problem of evil, and explained one possible way of defeating it. There is another way, however. You’ll remember that the logical problem of evil is the alleged logical contradiction between these two propositions:

1.       An omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent being exists.
2.       Evil exists.

In the last post I focused on the atheist contention that an omnipotent being has the power to actualize any logically possible state of affairs. Since a state of affairs in which free agents choose only good actions is logically possible, it follows (they suppose) that an omnipotent being could bring about such a state of affairs. I noted in response that omnipotence does not include the power to actualize logically impossible states of affairs; it is therefore not possible for God to coerce agents to perform actions freely. Therefore, if freedom of the will is even possible, it follows that evil actions undertaken by free creatures are not inconsistent with the existence of God.

                In this post, however, I’d like to focus on the LPE as it relates to benevolence. It is alleged that a benevolent being would desire states of affairs which do not include evil. It seems somewhat important here to explain what is meant by “evil,” and what is generally meant is suffering. Atheists who are concerned with the LPE tend to focus on certain evils over others. For instance, the rape of a little child, or Nazi crimes against humanity. A theist like myself would be happy to admit that child rape and genocide are evil, yet would be uncomfortable simply defining evil as that which causes pain or suffering to a conscious being. For the sake of argument we overlook this, and we understand that something very much like “suffering” is alleged to be contradictory to the desires of a benevolent being.

                But why think, apart from it seeming intuitively obvious, that a benevolent being desires states of affairs in which there is no suffering whatsoever? We humans allow the infliction of pain under many circumstances, such as life-preserving surgeries which require the removal of a limb, or of diseased tissue. The atheist might counter that in these circumstances, we have over-riding reasons for allowing (not to mention actively causing) suffering, and that what we are doing is not only not evil, it is morally good and even morally compulsory. So we do have clear counter-examples from our own experience where to do what is good might require the infliction of pain. The atheist might counter that in the offered example, there was a pre-existing evil (disease) which we are justified in eradicating by causing further suffering. The suffering we cause will stop the much greater suffering caused by doing nothing. Whereas it does not appear that God could have a justifying reason like this, since there were no prior evils to be eradicated.

                It is necessary at this point to remember some specific things about Christian theology and anthropology, however. For instance, God made mankind to be rightly related to Himself, and as Augustine poignantly says, “our heart is restless until it finds its rest in [God].” So then, for God to allow man to shun and reject Him is to allow him to inflict suffering upon himself. So, by our example of a surgeon, a benevolent being will seek to actualize good states of affairs, and a state of affairs in which humans are drawn back to God rather than rejecting Him and hating him is a good state of affairs.

                The argument from the definition of benevolence also seems to assume that a benevolent being would immediately eradicate all suffering; that is, that such a being desires to eradicate all suffering now rather than later. This assumption, for reasons mentioned above, seems dubious. It is clear that an agent could perform forward-looking actions with a view to actualizing some good future state of affairs, and that she may indeed be morally justified in so doing. So the proponent of the LPE would have to show that no future state of affairs could possibly serve as justification for the suffering experienced in the present. No such demonstration is forthcoming. For these and other reasons, it seems to me clear that a benevolent being would not necessarily desire states of affairs in which there is no suffering. But for a logical contradiction to exist here, this would have to be the case necessarily.

               Indeed, there are theists who argue that one can actually prove that statements (1) and (2) above are logically consistent with each other. All that is required is to suggest a third proposition which is consistent with (1) but entails (2). Such a statement might be: "God has morally sufficient reasons for allowing the evil and suffering that we observe." If this is even possibly true, then it demonstrates that propositions (1) and (2) are logically consistent. And it follows therefore that there is no logical problem of evil. 

                It is tempting to discard the problem of evil entirely as an utter failure, yet this might be premature, for there is another form it currently takes: the evidential (or probabilistic) version. In this version, the atheist/agnostic admits that there is no logical contradiction between God and evil, but that the sheer amount of apparently gratuitous evil makes it exceedingly unlikely that God exists. A whole host of factors come into play here which we could safely ignore while discussing the logical problem of evil, and these will take a bit of time to consider. So in the next post, I’ll consider some of them, and I’ll focus on what John Loftus calls the “Darwinian problem of evil,” which is the extensive animal pain and suffering to which the traditionally offered theodicies might not apply. 

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