What Could God do about Evil?

My post “Evil: Still no Good Answers” has provoked a lively discussion with over 200 comments. Theistic commentators naturally want to argue that there are indeed plausible reasons for God to permit evil, even evils of the magnitude, extent, and variety that we find in the actual world. A common theme of these replies is to demand that those who pose atheological arguments from evil must state realistic alternatives. How, specifically, might God have eliminated or alleviated the moral or natural evil of the world? It is easy enough, they imply, to bemoan the world’s evils, but if this complaint is to have substance, if it is to be more than a cri de coeur, then there has to be some plausible account of just how the world could have had less evil without also eliminating the greatest goods.

It is the case that evils and goods are connected in intricate ways so that some goods, indeed, some of the most important ones can only arise in the face of evils, and eliminating those evils would also cost us the related goods. For instance, it is easy to imagine a universe that would be a hedonistic paradise with no travail, hardship, or challenge and with well-fed, healthy creatures living lives of ease and never having a pain or enduring a want that is not instantly gratified. But such a life would only be a sort of Brave New World of self-indulgence and selfishness populated by lazy sybarites who dream nothing, achieve nothing, have no deep thoughts or feelings, and experience no great triumphs. A world with no pains, frustrations, or heartbreak, where a comfortable life requires no effort and nothing bad ever happens to anyone would also be a world in which nothing would matter, there would be no greatness or nobility, and everyone would be an over privileged, spoiled, useless nonentity (think the “affluenza” teen).

But the Problem of Evil (PoE) is not a complaint that life is not a fool’s paradise of meaningless indulgence. It is a false dilemma to pose the only choices as between a world of hedonistic indulgence and the vale of tears we currently inhabit. That life can be made better without depriving it of meaning is, in fact, apparent from human history. Compare, for instance, the lives of people currently living in Scandinavia with the lives of their ancestors 1200 years ago. Compared to today’s residents of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, the lives of their Viking ancestors were poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Science, medicine, technology, an advanced economy, and the development of more humane cultural ideals, such as social equality, have made lives much better. Further, it is a good bet that Scandinavians now are, on the whole, more considerate, compassionate, and kinder than they were 1200 years ago. It is an obvious fact that lives of violence and hardship tend to make people worse, and that, by contrast, a modicum of material comfort and personal security frees people from the need to focus narrowly on their own survival.

So, the point that we are making in raising the PoE is not that we crave a hedonistic pseudo-paradise, but that many of the evils in life appear wholly pointless and that the world would be better off without them. With the worst evils, we cannot even imagine what would, in principle, redeem them. In The Brothers Karamazov, the question is posed whether we would agree to a universe of universal happiness if the price were that one small, innocent creature would be tortured to death. That question should give you pause. Yet in our world many thousands of small innocent creatures are tortured to death every day. Some die slow, painful deaths due to disease or malnutrition. Others are torn by bombs or bullets or crushed as their homes collapse in earthquakes or tornadoes. Others are burned in house fires or mangled in automobile accidents. The toll is truly staggering. The skeptic has to ask why not one of these could have been spared. If, in fact, such carnage—not even sparing one—serves some vast eternal plan, that plan would seem wholly unimaginable, not only beyond our comprehension, but beyond our wildest fancy. Not only can we not see how such evils will be redeemed, we cannot even imagine how they could be redeemed.

In philosophical terminology, the plethora of apparently pointless evils makes us wonder whether some might be genuinely gratuitous. A gratuitous evil is one that not even an omnipotent being could redeem. Only logical necessities could frustrate the will of an omnipotent being. If an omnipotent being wants a state of affairs to hold, that state of affairs will exist unless it is logically impossible for that state to be realized. Thus, not even an omnipotent being could create the state of affairs in which something exists that was both round and square at the same time and in the same respect. Further, a perfectly good being will only permit a preventable evil if that evil is a necessary condition for preventing an even greater evil or achieving some good great enough to redeem that permitted evil. Finally, an omniscient being will be aware of all possible goods and evils and the modal relationships between them, e.g. whether some evil might be a logically necessary condition for the realization of some good [To say that p is a logically necessary condition for q is to say that □~(~p & q)], or, equivalently, □(~p → ~q).]

Putting together the conclusions of the above paragraph, we can define the kinds of evils that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being will permit. Instead of “permit” I will use “actualize” where “actualize” encompasses both of what Alvin Plantinga calls “strong” and “weak” actualization. A being actualizes something strongly when that being directly creates it. Such a being actualizes something weakly when that being permits other beings to strongly actualize that thing. Principle P defines the necessary conditions for God to actualize an evil:

P: A perfectly good, omnipotent, and omniscient being will actualize an evil e only if (a) the actualization of e is a logically necessary condition for the prevention (the non-actualization) of an even worse evil e*; in other words, necessarily, e* is actualized if e is not. Or (b) the actualization of e is a logically necessary condition for the actualization of a redeeming good g; in other words, necessarily, if e is not actualized, then redeeming good g is not.

To see what is meant by a “redeeming good,” suppose that the actual world, Wa, contains both evil e and good g where e is a logically necessary condition for g. Now consider another world, W, that is as much like Wa as possible, except that W contains neither e nor g. The good g is a redeeming good in the actual world if the total goodness of Wa (with both e and g) is greater than the total goodness of W (with neither e nor g).

Put simply and informally, God (an 0mniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being) will permit an evil e only if in the long run (sub specie aeternitatis) the occurrence of e permits God to increase the total goodness of the world. A gratuitous evil will therefore be one that not even God can redeem. Perhaps it is an evil so bad that nothing can redeem it—not even anything achievable by an omnipotent being. Or perhaps that evil is not a necessary condition for achieving the highest goods; omnipotence can achieve such goods without permitting such evil. Expressed another way, a gratuitous evil is one that an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being cannot have a morally sufficient reason for permitting because (a) an omniscient being would know about such an evil, (b) an omnipotent being could have prevented that evil, and (c) a perfectly good being would have done so. Clearly, then, if an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists, there is necessarily no unredeemable, i.e. gratuitous evil. Hence, if any evil is in fact gratuitous, then there can be no being that is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good. In other words, if any evil is in fact gratuitous, God does not exist; indeed, God necessarily does not exist.

Are there gratuitous evils? William Rowe famously argued that the plethora of instances of suffering by innocent creatures, such as a fawn burned in a forest fire, provides reasons for thinking that one or more of such instances probably constitutes a gratuitous evil. Let’s expand on this argument a bit. Surely, a gratuitous evil would be an instance of unwanted and undeserved suffering. How many instances of unwanted and undeserved suffering have there been? The neurological complexity to experience suffering is probably quite ancient, extending far back into the Paleozoic. Let’s suppose, then, that in the Phanerozoic Eon (the last 542 million years). There have been one trillion (1012) instances of unwanted and undeserved suffering. If just one of these was gratuitous, then God does not exist. For instance, if one Diplodocus suffered needlessly in the late Jurassic, then God does not exist. We can construct a Rowe-like argument as follows:

1) If one or more of the 1012 instances of unwanted and undeserved suffering was gratuitous, then God does not exist.

Premise: Definition of “gratuitous.”

2) The overwhelming majority of those 1012 instances of unwanted and undesired suffering are apparently gratuitous.

Premise: In the vast majority of cases of unwanted, undeserved suffering, we can see no plausible or even possible redeeming good, i.e. they appear utterly pointless to us.

3) We have no reason to think that those instances of apparently gratuitous, unwanted and undeserved suffering were, in fact, not gratuitous.

Premise: There is no a priori reason for thinking that our perceptions of apparent gratuitousness must be wrong.

4) If, in the overwhelming majority of cases, the instances of unwanted and undeserved suffering appear to be gratuitous, and if there is no reason to hold that they are in fact not gratuitous, then at least one instance of undeserved, unwanted suffering is probably gratuitous.

Premise: If very many a’s appear to be b’s, and if there is no reason to think that a’s are not b’s, then we conclude that a’s are probably b’s. A fortiori we may conclude that some instance of a probably is b.

5) Some (one or more) of the 1012 instances of unwanted, undeserved suffering was probably gratuitous.

Conclusion: From 2, 3, and 4.

6) God probably does not exist

Conclusion: From 1 and 5.

“Skeptical theists” would challenge premise 4 of the above argument. They would argue that the apparent gratuitousness of an evil is no grounds for concluding that it probably is gratuitous. They argue that atheologians rely on a “noseeum” assumption; that is, they assume that if they cannot see any way for an evil to be redeemed, then it is probably not redeemable. However, they say that God is omnipotent and has eternity to work with. Our perceptions of what is or is not redeemable within our very limited framework may not hold in God’s unlimited framework. We probably cannot even imagine the goods that God might have planned for the long run, nor can we conceive of the unfathomably complex logical connections that might exist between goods and evils. The upshot is no matter how horrendous and pointless an evil appears to us, we cannot say with any confidence that an all-powerful being cannot redeem it in the course of eternity.

Fair enough, the atheologian could reply, but such skepticism cuts both ways. Sure, it initially sounds plausible to say that God might achieve some goods so great that we cannot even imagine them. Suppose I even admit that God might have some currently unfathomable reason for permitting evil, that is, so far as I know, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that God could redeem every evil in the long run. But such a concession amounts to very little. To overcome my current, very strong, perception of the seeming gratuitousness of some evils, it is not enough to say that, so far as I know, God might redeem them; I have to have some reason to think that it is to some degree probable that each and every one of such evils is redeemable. Yet the very arguments of skeptical theism—about the limitations of our knowledge of the capacities of omnipotence and the complexity of logical relations between goods and evils—undermine the hope that we could have such reasons. The brutal murder of a child mightultimately be redeemed. Or it might not. If the arguments supporting skeptical theism are correct, then we are just not in a position to know which is the case.  If possible future goods are unimaginable, then they are unimaginable, and we cannot stake anything on their putative redeeming virtues. Put another way, without some basis for saying what goods might plausibly redeem all evils, there is no solid basis for saying that any putative goods will do so.

The upshot is that skeptical theism leaves us in the epistemological position of saying that, so far as we can know, maybe no evil is unredeemable but, equally, maybe one or more is. So, skeptical theism seems to leave us in the position that, given the facts of evil and our epistemological position, so far as we can know, God might exist or necessarily cannot. It appears, then, that skeptical theism should more honestly be called “agnosticism.”

Most of the theistic commentators on my previous post would seem to focus on premise 2 of the above Rowe-like argument. That is, they deny that most of the world’s evils even appear gratuitous because there are good reasons for thinking that they are not. On the contrary, moral evils seem to be required to permit certain great goods and natural evils are direct results of the laws of nature and could be prevented only by God’s constant ad hoc miraculous interference with the operation of those laws, which would seem to negate the whole idea of a law-governed universe. With respect to moral evils, the arguments generally take what we might call the “necessary risk” line or the “soul building” line. Let’s begin with these.

Genuine moral goodness seems to involve risk. To be genuinely good, a choice must be free. No one shoplifts with a cop standing right there. Our acts are good when they are not compelled or constrained by anything; rather, we do them simply because we choose to do the right thing. But the freedom to do the right thing seemingly entails the freedom to do the wrong thing. If, at the moment of making a morally significant choice—say shoplift/not shoplift—I am inhibited from making the bad one, then my choice was not free, and it lacks moral worth. God, being omniscient, knows all the “counterfactuals of freedom,” that is, he knows which choices will be made by free creatures in every possible world. Therefore, when we are about to make a bad choice, God could interfere, but if he were to interfere and prevent our bad choice, he would, ipso facto render our resulting good choice meaningless and worthless. That “choice” would be no choice, but the only thing we can do when God has prevented its alternative. My “choice” not to shoplift would have no more moral merit than hiccupping or sneezing. The upshot appears to be that even God has to run some risks. If he is to have a world with genuine moral goodness, he must not interfere with choices even when they are bad. Yet genuine moral goodness is such a great good that it is worthwhile even if, inevitably, many choices will be bad, even horrendous.

But the reasoning of the above paragraph could be redirected to an entirely different conclusion. It is true that if God prevents agent A from making a bad choice at t, and instead makes him make the right “choice,” then A’s “choice” at t has no moral value. However, zero moral value is higher than negative moral value, and a bad choice would have had disvalue, i.e. negative moral value. Seemingly, then, God could maximize moral goodness by allowing us to make our good choices freely, but interfere to prevent our bad choices. The good choices would be just as morally valuable, but the disvalue of bad choices would be replaced by the moral neutrality of a determined “choice.” Further, God could do this in a subtle way so that his interference would not be obvious. He could ensure that the phenomenal features of the determined “choices” are exactly the same as those genuinely free choices. So, if God were to interfere only with choices that would go bad, the world would have as much moral goodness resulting from good choices as it presently has but no moral evil, and so would have a much greater total amount of moral goodness. So, really, God does not need to run any risks at all. Unless bad choices themselves somehow also contribute moral goodness (And how could that be?) their elimination will increase the total moral goodness of the world.

I think the argument against the above proposal would be this: Surely we would eventually notice that, though we were often tempted to do wrong, and though it would often be in our self-interest to do so, we never actually make bad choices. Wouldn’t we begin to suspect after a while that we were being secretly manipulated, given the appearance of freedom, but really kept on a very short leash? Would we not begin to resent being God’s marionettes and start to seek ways to circumvent the controls placed on us? People deeply resent being manipulated or controlled even when it is “for their own good.” Or, perhaps, once we realize that we always choose the good, we would get lazy, not bother resisting temptation or striving to do the right thing since we know that God will not let us go wrong anyway.

The above counter-argument has some force, but is hardly conclusive. The worst evils of the world could be greatly reduced if God only stopped some of our worst choices. That is, God could permit us to choose somewhat bad things, but stop us from choosing to do the really horrendous things. Thus, we would be allowed to choose to slap someone, but not to douse them with gasoline and ignite them. We might be allowed collectively to discriminate against some group in employment or housing (bad as that would be), but not to send them to death camps. Really, the most harmful atrocities are instigated by a relatively small number of particularly bad choices by a minority of individuals. Most of us, in the vast majority of circumstances, would not even conceive of murdering or raping our neighbors. We are not even tempted to do so, even if our neighbors have loud, late parties, knee-high grass, and let their dogs and kids run wild. That is, for most of us, most of the time, it is not a matter of choosing not to do horrible things; the thought never crosses our minds, or, if it does, it is rejected in horror. God could make that the case for everyone all the time, and we would not think anything about it. I assume, dear reader, that you are a decent person and that it never even occurs to you to, e.g. blow up a crowded market full of innocent people. Indeed, you could not bring yourself to do such a thing. Does the fact that there are some moral evils you cannot even conceive of doing seem to be any onerous limitation placed upon you, a burdensome restriction of your freedom? I think not, so why doesn’t God do that for everybody?

One thing God could do without abrogating free choice is to change the psychological circumstances that often prompt people to make evil choices. God could make sure that in any choice situation, we are vividly aware of what the good is, not confused about it, as we so often are. He could limit our powers of self-deception and make us see through the flimsy excuses we give ourselves. Further, God could strengthen our ability to resist the blandishments of pleasure or negative motivations such as greed, hatred, or vindictiveness. One fairly slight change that would help prevent very many of the worst moral evils would be to touch up human psychology so that we do not so easily perceive people as “other.” I recently saw a program about the “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans in the 1990s. One victim testified that they were murdered and tortured by neighbors they had known and lived with their whole lives. The genocide in Rawanda going on at the same time was much the same; people were hunted down and massacred by neighbors. What happened in these cases was that they had been motivated by propaganda to think of their neighbors as “other” rather than as fellow humans. God could eliminate or greatly constrain this human tendency to dehumanize fellow humans and relegate them to “other” status. This change alone would have prevented many genocides, massacres, and atrocities. Further, there is no reason to think that the tendency to see people as “other” serves much of a useful purpose anymore. It is probably just an evolutionary dangler left over from our phylogenetic history, something maybe once adaptive and now horribly maladaptive.

A second sort of response to moral evil is to follow the “soul-building” theodicy developed by John Hick in his Evil and the God of Love (1966). Hick argues that a world with no evil would be a world with no opportunities to make ourselves into great-souled human beings. We make ourselves into truly worthy people by overcoming evil and hardship. But if God permits horrendous evils in order to build people’s characters, he certainly chose a grossly ineffective and wasteful way of doing so. True, hardship does sometimes motivate some people. Steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, long after he was comfortably mega-rich, wrote that when young he had the “blessing” of poverty. Being poor motivated him to make something of himself, and so, with brains, luck, and pluck he became one of the wealthiest men in the world. However, for very many people, poverty is simply crushing, leading to despair and the vices of hopelessness, such as alcoholism and drug abuse. Of course, someone could get on a high horse and say that those who let poverty sink them into despair simply should have chosen to deal with it as Carnegie did instead of letting it get them down. However, such sanctimonious preachment and moral dudgeon would look like a very unattractive instance of blaming the victims. The fact of the matter is that grievous suffering often makes people worse; it is all too often soul-destroying rather than soul-building.

Finally, isn’t the suffering due to natural evils ultimately due to the laws of nature? Disease and natural disasters are caused by the same underlying natural forces and entities that cause everything else. Indeed, the causes are often the same. A warm front that brings a destructive tornado to Oklahoma might bring only a balmy springtime breeze and gentle showers to Arkansas. If it is good to have a law-governed universe, and not one constantly adjusted by ad hoc miracles—and I think this case could be made—then we have to take the bad with the good that comes from the natural order, right? However, God created the laws of nature and was not required to create the ones we in fact have. Couldn’t an omnipotent being have created more benign laws that had more good effects and fewer bad ones? Theodicists often do not give God enough credit. They think of him as having far less power and intelligence than an omniscient and omnipotent being would have. Instead, they think of him as limited by the same sorts of circumstances that limit us.

Perhaps, though, it is right to fear that when we start speculating about alternate laws of nature, we are in danger of flying off into cloud-cuckoo-land. Fair enough, but there are many conceivable ways God could have limited natural evil even without massive constant interference or creating a whole different set of laws. In the 19th Century, the most prominent botanist in America was Harvard Professor Asa Gray. He was a strong supporter of Darwin, but demurred on one point. He could not believe, as Darwin did, that variation was always random. He held that God, on certain rare occasions, would cause a favorable variation to arise in a population, a variation that natural selection could then act upon. Indeed, I think that theistic evolutionists hold something like this today. If, in fact, God had done this, he could have eliminated some of the world’s nastiest things. Brain-eating amoebae, the rabies virus, Yersinia pestis, the tsetse fly, the Sydney funnel web spider, and lots of other nasties would not have existed or could have been made harmless.

In short, there is a great deal that God could have done to have removed some of the worst evils from the world, without making us into lotus-eating layabouts. The world could have lacked some of its worst evils without depriving us of a significant amount of freedom or removing our chances for achievement and self-improvement. Indeed, suffering has often inhibited moral growth, and a modicum of comfort and security has often promoted it. God could have done better and he should have.