Strategies for the Problem of Evil

A recent post on the problem of evil (PoE) drew over 250 comments, a new record, I think. The comments were lively, but went in various directions, making it hard to follow a clear thread of argument after a while. Here I would like maybe to help focus discussion by offering my synopsis of the ways that the PoE is generally approached, and listing what I see as the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Theists have generally addressed the PoE in three ways, or perhaps we should say by deploying three general strategies: (1) theodicy, (2) defense, and (3) skepticism.

(1) Theodicy. This is the old-fashioned, traditional approach. Theodicy is the attempt to explain the ways of God to humans, i.e. to give the reasons why a perfectly good and all-powerful God might permit evil. Standard themes of theodicists include appeal to libertarian free will (C.S. Lewis), the opportunity for soul-building (John Hick), and the opportunity for humans to be morally responsible and shape their own destinies (Richard Swinburne). What these themes have in common is the idea that evil is necessary for the achievement of significant goods, goods without which human life would be trivial and not worthy of living. It is often argued, for instance, that libertarian free will is such a great good that it must be permitted free exercise, even if it is used to make terrible choices. The alternative to free will, it is said, is that we become robots, programmed to do good but incapable of choosing it for ourselves. The assumption is that life as robots would be vastly inferior to life as free creatures, even creatures allowed to grossly misuse that freedom. Not everyone has agreed with that assumption. T.H. Huxley once made a comment to the effect that if he could always do what is right and think what is true at the expense of being wound up like a mechanical doll every night, he would seal the bargain immediately. Nevertheless, the appeal to libertarian free will has intuitive appeal for many.

Similarly, John Hick said that evils present us with an opportunity. By making good choices we engage in “soul building,” that is, we make ourselves into morally better creatures. If there were no challenges to overcome or difficult choices to make, if, indeed, the world were a hedonistic paradise, with no opportunities for heroism or villainy, we would be a sorry lot of lazy lotus-eaters.

In the same vein, Richard Swinburne says that it is good that God allows humans a large share in shaping their own destinies. Automata do what they are programmed to do. Free creatures can choose to make things better or worse for themselves and others. As Swinburne puts it:

“He [God] must for example not merely give men the power to bruise each other, but also give them the power to become heroin addicts, and to drop atomic bombs. A God who greatly limits the harm which men can do to each other greatly limits the control over their destiny which he gives men—just as an over-protective parent who preserves his child from almost every possible physical and moral danger does not allow him to run his own life, and in turn to make through his own choice a difference in the lives of others (Swinburne, “Natural Evil,” The American Philosophical Quarterly, October, 1978).”

Advantages: A successful theodicy would be the most psychologically satisfying of the responses to the PoE. If we could see evil as a necessary condition for the best things in life, the things that make life worth living, then it would be easier to come to terms with the bad things. When, for instance, we hear that a gang of homicidal fanatics has murdered an entire village of innocent people, we are appalled, but we do not blame God because we know that the power to do great good unavoidably carries with it the power to do great evil. Further, the theodicists have clearly shown that a world with no challenges, no setbacks or obstacles to overcome, would not be an ideal world. A world of hedonistic indulgence would indeed be a fool’s paradise. Surely, also, anyone with a sense of pride desires self-determination even at the cost of risk and would resent a “helicopter” God always hovering to keep us from stubbing our toes or making a bad choice. Theodicy therefore has strong intuitive appeal.

Disadvantages: The chief disadvantage of theodicy is that, while it might effectively address some evils, the magnitude, duration, extent, and nature of other evils make them hard to justify in any terms. Some evils are so bad, and so apparently gratuitous and senseless, that to invoke any theodicy seems superficial and facile. Some evils, indeed, work directly against the very goods typically invoked by theodicists—free will, self-determination, soul-building, etc. For instance the various disorders that cause cognitive impairment, and the various sorts of mental illness work precisely to deprive victims of the ability to choose freely, be responsible for themselves, or make themselves into better persons. Alvin Plantinga admirably sums up the problems with theodicy:

“…I must say that most attempts to explain why God permits evil—theodicies, as we may call them—strike me as tepid, shallow and ultimately frivolous. Does evil provide us with an opportunity for spiritual growth, so that this world can be seen as a vale of soul-making? Perhaps some evils can be seen this way; but much leads not to growth but to apparent spiritual disaster. Is it suggested that the existence of evil provides the opportunity for such goods as the display of mercy, sympathy, self-sacrifice in the service of others? Again, no doubt some evil can be seen this way…. But much evil seems to elicit cruelty rather than sacrificial love. And neither of these suggestions, I think, takes with sufficient seriousness the sheer hideousness of some of the evils we see.” (from “Self Profile” in Alvin Plantinga, ed. by Tomberlin and Van Inwagen)

(2) Defense. Alvin Plantinga is the main advocate of offering a “defense” in response to the PoE rather than a theodicy. A defense does not attempt to explain why God permits evil. Plantinga candidly admits that he cannot explain why God permits evil. A defense has the much more modest aim of deflecting the PoE as an atheological argument. That is, Plantinga’s aim is to show that, in the face of atheological arguments from evil, the theist can still rationally believe that God has a good reason for permitting evil even if he cannot say what that reason might be.

Plantinga first addresses the logical problem of evil, that is, the charge that the existence of evil, or at least some evil, is logically incompatible with the existence of God. His strategy is to show that there is a proposition consistent with “God exists” which, when conjoined with “God exists” entails the statement “evil exists.” That proposition that we add to “God exists” to entail “Evil exists” need not be in any sense probable or plausible; it need not even be true. All that is required is that the added proposition be possibly true. If it is possibly true, then, since the conjunction of that proposition and “God exists” entails “evil exists,” we have demonstrated that there is a possible state of affairs in which God and evil co-exist. If there is a possible state of affairs in which both God and evil exist, then there can be no contradiction between “God exists” and “Evil exists.” After all, if two propositions contradict each other, there is no possible circumstance in which they could both be true. There is no possible world in which p and not-p are simultaneously true.

The details of Plantinga’s argument are very convoluted and technical, drawing upon the arcana of possible worlds semantics and invoking such mind-numbing concepts as “trans-world depravity” and the “counterfactuals of freedom.” Put in the simplest possible terms Plantinga argues that it is possible that even omnipotence cannot create a world populated with significantly free creatures and guarantee that those creatures will commit no evil. Whether Eve eats of the forbidden fruit is up to Eve, not God. Further, it might be that every possible free creature would commit at least one evil in any world in which that being exists. If we take the possibly-true proposition “God created the world and the free creatures in it, and every world with free creatures that God could create is a world in which at least one evil is committed” and we conjoin that with “God exists” the conjunction will entail that some evil exists in the world. With modification, this approach can be made to encompass not just some evil but all the evil that there is.

However, it might be objected that Plantinga’s defense applies only to moral evil, the evils due to the choices of free agents. What about natural evils, such as disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, volcanoes, and forest fires? Plantinga argues that we can extend his defense to natural evils if we see them as caused by evil spirits, demons who use their free will to create havoc wherever they can. If someone replies that Plantinga cannot be serious and that it is just silly to invoke evil spirits, his reply is that, silly or not, it is a possible state of affairs, and to deflect the charge of inconsistency, a scenario need not be plausible at all. Again, it can even be false. All that matters is that it is possible.

What, though, of the versions of PoE that claim merely that evil is evidence against the existence of God, i.e. that the occurrence of evil makes it less probable that God exists? Plantinga responded in a lengthy and detailed examination of the various interpretations of probability in the journal Philosophical Inquiry. He concluded that none of the recognized interpretations of probability can provide a basis for such an argument.

Advantages: The great advantage of a defense is that it puts the entire burden of proof on the atheologian. All that the theist has to do is show that the argument from evil does not work; there is no onus to provide positive reasons for thinking that evil is in fact justified. This makes the job much easier for the beleaguered believer who is attempting to fend off the attacks of pesky atheists. There is no reason to go out on a limb and try to say why God permits dreadful things. As Plantinga notes, given the sheer hideousness of some evils, such replies will sound superficial or even frivolous. Unlike the theodicists, the defender acknowledges the mystery and depth of evil, but merely argues that his faith is not thereby rendered irrational.

Disadvantages: Since defenses are formulated in reply to atheological arguments, their effectiveness is obviously hostage to the sorts of arguments that atheologians have so far deployed. Each such defense is a challenge to the atheolgian to come up with a new argument that gets around the defense. For instance, I would argue that the most cogent argument from evil would not claim that evil contradicts theism or makes it improbable. A more effective argument might be one based on inference to the best explanation: Given the facts of evil, the kinds, intensity, duration, and dispersion of evil in the world, what is the most reasonable way of explaining those facts? Are the facts best explained, as I would claim, by the hypothesis that they ultimately result from impersonal laws of nature and natural causes that were not in any sense designed or contrived to fulfill a moral purpose? In a universe with no overall plan, purpose, or design, you expect shit to happen, and too bad if sentient creatures are in the way when it does. On the other hand, are the facts of evil best explained on the hypothesis that natural causes are secondary causes that were created and allowed to operate as part of an overall plan that has an ultimate, morally good purpose? I will admit that evil might be logically compatible with this latter hypothesis, but how could anyone possibly say that it explains the facts of evil better than the no-purpose hypothesis?

At a deeper level, a defense might effectively address arguments from evil, but the PoE is more than just the arguments posed by atheologians. Theists themselves are often deeply troubled by the existence of horrific, undeserved evils in a world supposedly designed by a God of love. The Book of Job was not addressed to atheists. Even if theists can thumb their noses at would-be debunkers, there is still the deep question of how love is to be seen in an order of things that puts many innocent creatures to torture.

(3) Skepticism: The recent trend in dealing with arguments from evil is skepticism. The skeptical theist argues that any effort to adduce the facts of evil as evidence against the existence of God rests upon a dubious epistemological assumption. The assumption is that the phenomena of good and evil that we have so far observed can be projected into the indefinite future. Skeptical theists observe that the theistic God is conceived as all-powerful. Further, unlike human beings, there are no limitations on the time that is allowed to make things turn out. When we are concerned with an omnipotent and eternal being, such as God, the only perspective that matters is eternity. God can be absolved of culpability in the short run (even if the short run is billions of years) if all things are resolved for the good sub specie aeternitatis as Spinoza put it.

Thus, an argument from the existence of seemingly gratuitous evil—like, say, William Rowe’s argument about the fawn burned in a forest fire—cannot get off the ground. No matter how pointless an evil might appear to us given our limited perspective, this is no reason to think that it cannot and will not be redeemed for good by all-powerful benevolence working throughout eternity. When the poor milkman Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof demands of God “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I were a wealthy man?” the answer might well be “Yes!”  In a debate I had with William Lane Craig (in the pages of the Dallas Morning News, of all places) he expressed the thesis of skeptical theism as follows:

“We aren’t in a good position to assess with confidence the probability (or improbability) of whether God has morally sufficient reasons for permitting bad things. Suffering that appears utterly pointless within our limited framework may be seen to be justly permitted in God’s wider framework. The brutal murder of a child may have a ripple effect through history such that God’s reason for not preventing the evil may emerge only centuries later or in another country.” (Dallas Morning News, June 13, 1998)

We have no grasp of the vast complexity of things and no understanding of how infinite power might ultimately, in the course of eternity, bring good out of even the worst evils. Therefore, there is no basis for saying that evil is evidence against the existence of God.

Advantages: Like Defense, skepticism puts the burden of proof on the atheologian. Further, the burden the skeptic puts on is heavy indeed. Surely it would be arrogance bordering on sheer chutzpah for the atheologian to assert that he is in a position to judge what omnipotence might bring about in the course of eternity. It might truly be that, as Paul put it in I Corinthians 2:9 (KJV), “But as it is written, eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared…” That is, all of human experience may be wholly insufficient to judge what God can and will accomplish. The atheologian cannot even say that evils like the burned fawn are even prima facie gratuitous. We are in a positon of radical ignorance about the capacities of omnipotence exercised through eternity, so our everyday, commonsense judgments about good and evil just do not apply.

Disadvantages: Skepticism cuts both ways. In the above quote, William Lane Craig says that a horrible incident like the murder of a child may ultimately work out for good. Or maybe not. Who can say? Craig says that we are not in the epistemological position to justify saying that God probably does not have a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil. To exactly the same degree, and for exactly the same reason, we are not in the epistemological positon to justify saying that God probably does have a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil. Put another way, any consideration that can be given for saying that omnipotence can bring good out of even the worst evils is pari passu, reason for saying that omnipotence could bring about the good without those evils, or at least without some of them. If we have no idea about the potentialities of omnipotence, then we have no idea. Not the atheist. Not the theist. Nobody.

Actually, skepticism creates a much bigger problem for theists than for atheists. Recall that a theist cannot admit that any evil is gratuitous. That is, every evil must be such that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting it. If we equate evil with undeserved, unwanted suffering, how much evil has there been? How long have there been sentient creatures that have been subject to undeserved, unwanted suffering? It is impossible to say for sure, but surely the first creatures capable of experiencing undeserved, unwanted suffering must have existed far back in the Paleozoic Era. Let’s guess that since that time there have been one trillion, 1012, instances of unwanted, undeserved suffering. The theist must hold that none of these instances was gratuitous, that is, that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting each one. But how can the theist know for sure, or even with any degree of probability, that omnipotence could not have omitted even one of those instances? The tenets of skeptical theism would seem to make such an assurance absolutely unattainable.