Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil is, I think, one of the most intriguing issues in the Philosophy of Religion.

One reason is that the problem of evil is something that actually seems to move people in terms of religious belief. I'd be surprised to learn of anyone who was convinced of the existence of God because of the argument from first cause or the argument from design. These arguments, generally, are convincing only to those who already accept the existence of a deity. And I'd be even more surprised to discover a theist who gave up his belief because the arguments for the existence of God were riddled with logical fallacies.

Yet, if you looked around and talked with someone who has either turned to faith or rejected faith, I'd bet you'd find that the Problem of Evil was a contributing factor. The existence of evil in the world appears to be something that actually influences people's belief (or non-belief) about God.

After the Holocaust many Jews, as well as other followers of other religions, gave up on faith. How could God exist and allow such evil? What kind of belief in God could make sense of the senseless murder of 6 million?

Many people reacted similarly to 9/11. How could God allow people to kill so many innocent people...and in his name no less?

And yet for others, their faith is made stronger by these events. They see God's presence in the righteous actions of those who risked their lives to save Jews or in one's own miraculous survival in the Holocaust. And many turned to faith for answers after 9/11.

Many scholars posit, as well, that the existence of evil was the impetus for the birth of religion in the first place. As ancient Man began to think of his place in the universe and reflected on his experience of great pain and suffering, he invented (or turned to, I guess, depending on one's belief). One can see this through out the Bible: God and his prophets reassuring the people that there was a reason for the pain and suffering in the world.

Another reason that the Problem of Evil fascinates is because it raises so many important philosophical questions: free will, moral responsibility, the nature of faith, the role of reason in religious belief, and basic metaphysical questions: is the universe one where God, devils, angels, miracles can exist or is it one where the supernatural is essentially nonsensical.

So, just what is The Problem of Evil?
The standard conception of God in the Western monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is that God is Omniscient (all-knowing), Omnipotent (all-powerful), and Omni-benevolent (all-good/loving).

God is all good, so he wants to prevent suffering and injustice. He'll have the right motives.

God is all powerful, so he has the means to stop suffering and injustice.

God is all knowing, so he knows when and where suffering is occurring, so he has the opportunity.

In other words, God has the motive, means, and opportunity to prevent suffering and injustice.

And yet, suffering and injustice (evil) persist.

We have four claims:
  1. God is all-good

  2. God is all-powerful

  3. God is all-knowing

  4. Evil Exists

These four claims together appear to be incompatible, but (most) theists do not want to deny these four claims. So, in attempts to resolve this paradox, theists often engage in Theodicy. From the Greek for God's Justice, Theodicy is an attempt to show that all four claims are compatible.

There are, as you can imagine, many theodicies. Over the years, I've collected the various ones I've come across, either from research or from students. In a subsequent series of posts, I will explain and analyze some of the more interesting theodicies.

A couple of ground rules and warnings for this series:

  • I'm primarily interested in theodicy that maintains all four claims. One might argue, as Rabbi Kushner does in his deservedly famous When Bad Things Happen to Good People, that God is not all-powerful. Such an account makes room for the existence of evil, but it also changes the standard Omni-conception of God that most theists appear to hold.

  • I am interested in hearing from others about their thoughts on these Theodicies. Since I'll be dedicating one post to a Theodicy (or a set of closely related ones), keep your comments to a post focused on the theodicy being discussed.

  • I will delete any comments that do not actually contribute to the discussion: so don't bother calling me a blasphemer, engaging in witnessing or preaching, or posting a bunch of Biblical quotes about how "He's the one" or some such thing. Remember this is my website, not a community bulletin board.

  • In the end, none of the theodicies work. Nonetheless, unlike many non-theists, I do not think this demonstrates the non-existence of God. It does, however, point to the basic irrationality of religious belief. I will elaborate this point in a later post that will conclude this series.


Patrick Stephens said...

The theodicy with which I'm most familiar is one of the simplest: God is obscure.

Yes, God is all loving, but we don't understand what true love is. Yes, God is all powerful, but we don't understand true power. Yes, God is all knowing, but we don't understand what such knowledge entails.

The manifestation of what we call evil is a piece of God's creation, and God's creation is, by definition, all good. That we see it as evil is merely evidence of our own ignorance.

I think this might be more prevalent in Christianity, where the conception of God is often more cuddly than in Judaism or Islam. In any event, I think it's Catholic doctrine.

Philip said...

Let me first say that as I understand it, Islamic theodicy does not maintain the goodness of God, but instead portrays Him as an arbitrary determinist whose nature is not goodness but will.

The theodicy which I maintain, on the other hand, is that of classical Reformed and Thomistic theology which is that God, while not the author of evil, has allowed evil into the world for some higher purpose.

Evil, in the Augusto-Thomist view, is a perversion of good and cannot exist on its own: thus it would not have to be a creation of a Good God.

Shawn Klein said...

Hey Pat, I'll be dealing with versions of the Obscure Theodicy.

Hey Roccondil. I am by no means an expert in Islamic theology, but I think you are wrong about it lacking the goodness characteristic. One of the many ways Allah is described is as The Merciful, The Compassionate, and similar appellations. And as Islam is a development out of Judaism and Christianity, I would surprised to find a radically different conception of God.

I will also be dealing with the Higher Purpose and the Evil as derivative theodicies.

emergencyphilosopher said...

Thankyou for your thoughtful and nuanced article.

Although I personally find theodicy a bewildering and irrational doctrine it can solve problems in connection with the Theological Voluntarism debate.

Abraham was ordered to murder Isaac in Genesis 22 in obedience to God. By suspending generally held principles of ethics for what one might consider extra-moral considerations, God reaffirms His ambiguous and elusive nature. If this were to be constructed into a cogent argument it might yet be possible to defend against the atheist stump question regarding the problem of evil.

I am a philosophy and theology undergraduate at Edinburgh University in the UK and I have set up my own blog which considers such issues as the problem of evil, the existence of God and the free will etc

Anonymous said...

Some random comments / thoughts:
1. Islam does state that God is merciful, etc., however, it also states that being good is no sure guarantee to heaven, nor is being evil a guarantee to hell. God in His wisdom (we would say whim) can take a decision to the contrary! The only guaranteed way to heaven is to kill Satan's followers!

2. The concept of good and evil is so difficult to solve, particuarly if one assumes that the all knowing God, who knows the past, present and future, created a Lucifer (call him what you will) and the latter's set of followers (devils), who in spite of millenia have not been destroyed! Strangely the Bible also records the words ' I create good and evil'.., the why punish the evil doer?
Is God the sole creator of life? Then why do we have so many born into families that have never and will never believe Him; who sincerely believe that someone else is God and sincerely do their best to destroy their creator's (of whom they are ignorant)followers?
3.Those of you who know Hindu astrology (and palmistry, etc.) will realise that it is possible to predict so many facts and incidents in the past present and future lives of not only the individual whose horoscope is under study, but also of his kith, kin and friends! The accuracy of prediction depends on the extent of knowledge of the astrologer.
What I'm trying to say is that everything according to astrtology is already predicted or predetermined even before our birth - whether one will be rich, poor, good, evil, etc.
Why create those who will become evil and then seek to punish or save them?
Else, is the evil one also a creator of life?
Is life a large scale game of chess between God and Satan ( a la one of the stories of Mark Twain? Hence are we pieces always expendable?
4.Einstein stated that if space and the obviously the objects in it were to be removed, time would cease to exist! (Time or the concept of time? I wonder). Similarly, if we objects were to be removed, would God or the concept of God cease to exist?
Hinduism seeks to explain sickness, war and all forms of evil as Karma - a man suffers for the misdeeds of his past birth. However, the twice born vegetarian brahmin (born again as a man because of his good deeds in the earlier life), may become a carnivorous crow or dog or something else in his next life!

I don't think any religion propagates evil. Rather it is when one seeks to propagate one's religion or defend one's religion against those who criticise it that a lot of evil is generated and justified! Here I am intentionally avoiding the other evils of greed, robbery, adultery and the like which are all decried by all religions.

God and the continued existence of Evil is a topic that I don't think will ever find a solution. Rather, even an uneducated atheist who has suffered wrongly, will create a mental form that will rescue him from his predicament, since hope lies eternal in the human breast (E.A. Poe).

I often wonder, if life exists on other celestial objects, not necessarily of our own galaxy and whether there too, we have a similar situation of good vs evil.
I wonder if after death we will be in almost eternal sleep until the awakening that Christians speak of? After that? Or will we (if we escape this cycle of reincarnations (as the Hindus say), merge with the creator? After that? Will be free from our bodies taking any forms that please us or our creator and travelling the length and breadth of the universe(s)?
Are good and evil like two sides of a coin and is that the reason one can never really destroy evil?
I wonder

Patrick Stephens said...

What about Manicheanism?

Just because God is all-powerful and all-knowing doesn't necessarily mean that he's the only being who has such knowledge and power.

If good is testament to God's love, then evil must be a testament to Satan's hatred.

(I know, it seems illogical to say that two things could both be "all-powerful," but I'm guessing that logic will be the first victim of the debate.)

Stefan said...

Very interesting post, and very intriguing at that.
Malebrache attempts at least to resolve this concept in both the "Search After Truth" and the "Dialogues on Metaphysics" and while I find his arguments flawed in many ways, (Outdated, and being a rationalist in general) they bring up interesting points, for example, that the world is perfect, and the existence of evil necessary for god's purpose for the world, that is to bring grace upon himself. An odd idea indeed, also leading one to the idea of a selfish god, but an interesting point nonetheless.

But I find your claims to be not only the necessity for God's existence, but also a s proof for his non-existence. For example, if you accept that god is not all powerful, as Kushner claims (in a work, I admit, I have not read) then there is nothing that is necessitating god be divine. He could simply be an evolutionarily advanced species that has advanced to the point where we see him as like-divinity. From there, the other two claims involving omnipotence, fall apart, one who is not all-powerful, cannot be all-good, and the act of goodness requires power, power to understand good, and power to act upon it.
My final point is the addition of a fifth claim. I would argue that a logical addition would be the unchanging nature of god. God, as it were must be unchanging throughout time, as change denotes a lack of perfection, and an imperfect god contradicts an all-good god, which in turn contradicts an all-powerful god, which as I mentioned earlier contradicts the very deity nature of god himself.
But good luck on your venture and I look forward to reading your other posts!

Shawn Klein said...

Many of the issues people are bring up in the comments will be addressed by future posts in this series.

Anonymous said...

You take god as an external force. in the east many Putting would say that god symbolises a power within.Hence the holocast is man made not god made.Holocast exists in your life and mine.God(your term) then would be the power to create a better place.Putting God (!)on a good or evil pedestal diminishes man-----abdicating responsibility is not non-evil.The problem is to define man,not god.Man exists for sure.

Joe said...

if i may add from a non-theist view...

Having to label the concept of "evil", i see it as a part of nature; meaning that nature relies on a balance of good and evil. To illustrate, imagine nature being a see-saw, and on one end good, the other end evil. There will always be a small teeter, but should one end hit the ground, nature fails. This infers that the concept of evil is perhaps a misunderstanding of nature, and people have simply labeled this aspect of nature as things being evil.

Shawn Klein said...

Hi Joe. Once you remove God, then there isn't a problem of evil. There is no paradox. As most readers of this blog know, I'm a non-theist and so this is my favorite solution. I'm looking at the problem of evil from inside a theist world view to see how it works out.

Nature as such is not evil or good; it is. Evil is a moral concept and as such can only apply to beings capable of choice (human beings).

Caleb said...

Interesting series, Shawn, I look forward to working through the rest of it.

I'm interested in the way you formulate the problem. You write, "We have four claims: God is all-good; God is all-powerful; God is all-knowing; Evil Exists. These four claims together appear to be incompatible, but (most) theists do not want to deny these four claims."

My first question revolves around which version of the argument you intend to address. As I understand it, there are two: the incompatibility argument (also referred to as the logical problem of evil) and the inductive argument (also known as the probabilistic problem of evil) (see for example, the article on the Problem of Evil on Stanford's Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is problematic, at best, to conflate the two differing formulations (though I'm certainly not accusing you of doing that) because this stacks the deck against the theist (since no one argument should be expected to be an adequate response to two arguments). Indeed, there is a crucial difference between the two formulations.

As I understand it, the incompatibility argument (cf. Mackie) holds that the existence of a three-omnis God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil. This is quite a strong claim, because it says, in essence, that it is impossible for God to existence.

On the other hand, the inductive problem maintains not that is is impossible that God exists, but that it is very unlikely given the standard three-omnis conception of God and given the existence of natural and moral evil in the world.

The reason that I want to draw the distinction between the logical problem and the probabilistic problem is that these need to be answered in very different ways.

The answer that I am most familiar with for the logical problem is Alvin Plantinga's free will defense (see Plantinga, God and Other Minds, The Nature of Necessity, or God, Freedom and Evil) in which Plantinga's project is merely to establish that it is possible (not probably the case, or actually the case, but only possibly the case) that God could not have created a world with moral good but no moral evil. The upshot here is that if it is possible that God and evil can coexist, then (obviously) it is not impossible. And because this is just what the incompatibility argument wants to establish, Plantinga's argument, if successful, solves the logical problem of evil (see my paper on Plantinga's argument ).

For myself, I'm persuaded that Plantinga has established the possibility that God and evil are compatible; this seems to be uncontroversial amongst the philosophical community. That being the case, it seems that the inductive argument is the one that stands in need of an answer. I confess that I have been mainly preoccupied with the logical problem, and haven't paid much attention to the answers to the probabilistic problem; in any event, these seem more to be exercises in theology more than philosophy, and so they don't interest me very much (and I'm not sure how useful they would be; trying to answer a philosophical question with a theological answer seems like recommending the installation of a new transmission when the patient has complained of a toothache).

I do want to make one comment regarding your formulation of the problem. You write:

"So, just what is The Problem of Evil? The standard conception of God in the Western monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) is that God is Omniscient (all-knowing), Omnipotent (all-powerful), and Omni-benevolent (all-good/loving). God is all good, so he wants to prevent suffering and injustice. He'll have the right motives. God is all powerful, so he has the means to stop suffering and injustice. God is all knowing, so he knows when and where suffering is occurring, so he has the opportunity. In other words, God has the motive, means, and opportunity to prevent suffering and injustice."

I want to point out that three propositions that you give ("God is all good, so he wants to prevent suffering and injustice," and so forth) are different from the traditional three-omnis formulation of the nature of God. Rather than merely asserting that God is all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing, these assert something further: they assert that if God is all-X, then God will Y. You rightly point out that (most) theists do not want to abandon the three-omnis conception of God. But I think that many a theist (this one included) might quibble with your assertion that God's all-good-ness entails that he wants to prevent suffering and injustice (it seems implicit that you intend that God's all-good-ness entails that he wants to prevent all suffering). But why should we suppose that? Some suffering (e.g. the soreness of muscles from vigorous exercise) turns out to be necessary to some good (the building of a healthy body, for instance). I'm aware that there are any number of response to this (the simplest, of course, being that God could give us bodies that would be healthy without exercise). I simply mean to point out that the entailment from all-good-ness is not as obvious as it seems on the face of it. These three entailments appear to be formulated in such a way as to stack the deck against the theist by laying an extremely heavy burden of proof on him.

I'm not at all sure that theists are going to accept these entailments. Even if one were to grant that God's all-good-ness entails a desire to prevent suffering and injustice, the door is still open to the idea that 1) he doesn't want to prevent all suffering and injustice, and that 2) something further must be added that will carry him from means, motive and opportunity to action (in other words, means motive and opportunity alone might not be sufficient for actual prevention). In any case, disputation about these entailments (and I think that most theists will dispute at least the first, and Plantinga might even claim that is possible that #2 is false) will carry us away from the problem of evil (in either of its forms) and towards a philosophy of God. And that doesn't seem like the direction that you want to take your series.

Thanks again for the thought-provoking essay. I look forward to your reply and to further discussion on the issue!

Best Regards,


Anonymous said...

I love this topic. I wrote an essay on this in college, I argued that God's benevolence and omnipotence is sound because suffering does not exist. I proved suffering and evil are merely products of human thought and therefore has no existence.

I don't believe in God, but if I were to honestly assess the question again I would emphasize the gift of free will, and how evil is in our own hands.

Shawn Klein said...

Hi Caleb,
Thanks for you thorough and thought-provoking comment. You raise several interesting issues about how I have formulated the issue. The short answer to your concerns is that in this series I am looking primarily to boil the issues down to the essential terms that are accessible to normal folks (not just philosophical geeks like us). Some of your concerns, even if valid, are parsing out the issues in a more technical manner than I wish to cover in this blog.

Case in point is the formulation of the problem of evil into distinct logical and evidential arguments. As some one trained in analytical philosophy, I understand the reasoning behind such a distinction. However, I don’t think there is really need to draw that distinction here. The main reason is that it gets more technical than I wish to, I try to keep my philosophizing in as real and natural terms as I can. But, I also have some fundamental philosophical concerns about a logical/evidential dichotomy. I think both the argument and the possible responses need to rely on both logical and evidential claims, so splitting them up doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. (Moreover, while I haven’t studied Plantinga’s argument in depth, I don’t find it persuasive at all and it’s news to me that his conclusions here are uncontroversial. But this really gets in to the Free Will Theodicy and I’m dealing with that --though not necessarily Plantinga directly-- in my next post.)

You also took issue with my formulation of the three traditional omnis. I don’t think these stray from traditional formulations (unless I’ve been reading all the wrong books!). And any way, it’s not the formulation of the omnis, it’s the entailments I claim for these. Nonetheless, I’ll admit to some vagueness here. The term “suffering” really is short hand for “undeserved/unjustified suffering” and that’s probably not made clear. The issue is not over the pain from going to the gym or the dentist. The issue is the apparently undeserved suffering of a 1 year old with Tay-Sachs or some other incurable, fatal, and painful disease.

But that aside, surely the idea that a being is all-good entails that the being desires/wants/wishes to prevent all injustice, evil, undeserved suffering, and the like. What else could being all-good mean? It might be that such an all-good being has these desires but cannot act on them or cannot act on all such desires (some may be mutually exclusive); but that’s a different claim. (And I take it, at the heart of Plantiga’s defense).

And surely a being that is all-powerful entails that the being has all the possible abilities to act on his desires. And a being that is all-knowing entails that all facts about the world are known to that being. I really don’t see how these entailments are controversial on the common-sense understanding of these terms. Nonetheless, I do think this points to the problematic nature of these terms.

It may be that the way I have formulated this problem puts a high, unfair burden of proof on the theist. But I don’t think so; namely because, though I’m a non-theist, I don’t think the problem of evil is sufficient for a philosophical rejection of theism. So the burden can’t be that high!

Shawn Klein said...

Hi Snacks. The claim that suffering is just a product of human thought and therefore has no existence is confused. Surely my dog suffers pain when she ice gets lodged between her toes; even if no human exists to have the thought. Also, the fact that pain is something that arises in the brain in someway and is in that way subjective doesn't mean it doesn't exist. How else could pain exist?

Malt said...

The first post of my blog talks about my theodicy. The blog is more my own musings and probably hardly as well-researched/written with as much philosophical experience as this one, but do take a look anyway. I don't think human suffering and pain are constructs of our own, though, like you said. But it's a very interesting blog you have:)

Malt said...

Sorry, I think I was mistaken in that last comment - you weren't the one who said that suffering and evil weren't real. In that case, I agree with you:)