Monday 1 May 2023

Problems with the Problem of Evil

By Keith Tidman


Do we really reside in what German polymath Gottlieb Wilhelm Leibniz referred to as ‘the best of all possible worlds’, picked by God from among an infinite variety of world orders at God’s disposal, based on the greatest number of supposed perfections? (A claim that the French Enlightenment writer Voltaire satirised in his novella Candide.)


How do we safely arrive at Leibniz’s sweeping assessment of ‘best’ here, given the world’s harrowing circumstances, from widespread violence to epidemics to famine, of which we’re reminded every day? After all, the Augustinian faith-based explanation for the presence of evil has been punishment for Adam and Eve’s original sin and expulsion from the Garden of Eden. From this emerged Leibniz’s term ‘theodicy’, created from two Greek words for the expression ‘justifying God’ (Theodicy: Essays on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man and the Origin of Evil, 1710).

No, there’s a problem … the ‘problem of evil’. If God is all powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), all places (omnipresent), all good and loving (omnibenevolent), and all wise, then why is there evil in the very world that God is said to have designed and created? Not having averted or fixed the problem, instead permitting unrestrained reins and abiding by noninterventionism. There is not just one form of evil, but at least two: moral evil (volitionally wrongful human conduct) and natural evil (ranging from illnesses and other human suffering, to natural law causing ruinous and lethal calamities).


There are competitor explanations for evil, of course, like that developed by the first-century Greek bishop Saint Irenaeus, whose rationalisation was that evil presented the population with incentives and opportunities to learn, develop, and evolve toward ever-greater perfection. The shortcoming with this Irenaean description, however, is that it fails to account for the ubiquity and diversity of natural disasters, like tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, and many other manifestations of natural law taking its toll around the globe.


Yet, it has been argued that even harmful natural hazards like avalanches and lightning, not just moral indiscretions, are part of the plan for people’s moral, epistemic growth, spurring virtues like courage, charity, gratitude, patience, and compassion. It seems that both the Augustinian and Irenaean models of the universe adhere to the anthropic principle that cosmic constants are imperatively fine grained enough (balanced on a sharp edge) to allow for human life to exist at this location, at this point in time.


Meanwhile, although some people might conceivably respond to natural hazards and pressing moral hardships by honing their awareness, which some claim, other people are overcome by the devastating effects of the hazards. These outcomes point to another in the battery of explanations for evil, in the reassuring form of a spiritual life after death. Some people assert that such rewards may be expected to tower over mundane earthly challenges and suffering, and that the suffering that moral and natural evil evokes conditions people for the enlightenment of an afterlife. 


At this stage, the worldly reasons for natural hazards and moral torment (purportedly the intentions behind a god’s strategy) become apparent. Meanwhile, others argue that the searing realities of, say, the Holocaust or any other genocidal atrocities or savagery or warring in this world are not even remotely mitigated, let alone vindicated, by the anticipated jubilation of life after death, no matter the form that the latter might take.


Still another contending explanation is that what we label evil in terms of human conduct is not a separate ‘thing’ that happens to be negative, but rather is the absence of a particular good, such as the absence of hope, integrity, forbearance, friendship, altruism, prudence, principle, and generosity, among other virtues. In short, evil isn’t the opposite of good, but is the nonattendance of good. Not so simple to resolve in this model, however, is the following: Would not a god, as original cause, have had to create the conditions for that absence of good to come to be?


Others have asserted that God’s design and the presence of evil are in fact compatible, not a contradiction or intrinsic failing, and not preparation either for development in the here and now or for post-death enlightenment. American philosopher Alvin Plantinga has supported this denial of a contradiction between the existence of an all-capable and all-benevolent (almighty) god and the existence of evil:


‘There are people who display a sort of creative moral heroism in the face of suffering and adversity — a heroism that inspires others and creates a good situation out of a bad one. In a situation like this the evil, of course, remains evil; but the total state of affairs — someone’s bearing pain magnificently, for example — may be good. If it is, then the good present must outweigh the evil; otherwise, the total situation would not be good’ (God, Freedom, and Evil, 1977).


Or then, as British philosopher John Hick imagines, perhaps evil exists only as a corruption of goodness. Here is Hick’s version of the common premises stated and conclusion drawn: ‘If God is omnipotent, God can prevent evil. If God is perfectly good, God must want to prevent all evil. Evil exists. Thus, God is either not omnipotent or perfectly good, or both’. It does appear that many arguments cycle back to those similarly couched observations about incidents of seeming discrepancy.


Yet others have taken an opposite view, seeing incompatibilities between a world designed by a god figure and the commonness of evil. Here, the word ‘design’ conveys similarities between the evidence of complex (intelligent) design behind the cosmos’s existence and complex (intelligent) design behind many things made by humans, from particle accelerators, quantum computers, and space-based telescopes, to cuneiform clay tablets and the carved code of Hammurabi law.

Unknowability matters, however, to this aspect of design and evil. For the presence, even prevalence, of evil does not necessarily contradict the logical or metaphysical possibility of a transcendental being as designer of our world. That being said, some people postulate that the very existence, as well as the categorical abstractness of qualities and intentions, of any such overarching designer are likely to remain incurably unknowable, beyond confirmation or falsifiability.


Although the argument by design has circulated for millennia, it was popularised by the English theologian William Paley early in the nineteenth century. Before him, the Scottish philosopher David Hume shaped his criticism of the design argument by paraphrasing Epicurus: ‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil? Is he neither able nor will? Then why call him God?’ (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, 1779).


Another in the catalog of explanations of moral evil is associated with itself a provocative claim, which is that we have free will. That is, we are presented with the possibility, not inevitability, of moral evil. Left to their own unconstrained devices, people are empowered either to freely reject or freely choose immoral decisions or actions. From among a large constellation, like venality, malice, and injustice. As such, free will is essential to human agency and by extension to moral evil (for obvious reasons, leaving natural evil out). Plantinga is among those who promote this free-will defense of the existence of moral evil. 


Leibniz was wrong about ours being ‘the best of all possible worlds’. Better worlds are indeed imaginable, where plausibly evil in its sundry guises pales in comparison. The gauntlet as to what those better worlds resemble, among myriad possibilities, idles provocatively on the ground. For us to dare to pick up, perhaps. However, reconciling evil, in the presence of theistic paradoxes like professed omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence, remains problematic. As Candide asked, ‘If this is the best ... what are the others?



John Triplett said...

Well done Keith, particularly your defining the entire debate as "The Unknowable". That in itself answers the dilemma presented.
Those of us nihilist agnostics certainly cannot accept any other discussion as rational. Some of us believe that the invoking of religion or god in human behavior can be a major cause of immoral and evil behavior.

Keith said...

Picking up, John, on one of your points, I suggest that the yawning unease with the disconcerting ‘unknowability’ you refer to has accounted for humankind’s tendency to mythologize, extending of course well back to prehistory. Our explanations of the cosmos and imagined meaning of our place in it became grounded in those woven tales. The sweeping result was conceptions of a first-cause, higher-order designer, as well as prescriptions and proscriptions for framing norms of virtue and behavior, with which people of faith yearn to conform.

Anonymous said...

Very good and accurate points Keith. You are obviously a well studied archeological historian.
Man's efforts to explain and put to use the vagaries of nature surely were mystifying and understandably led to worship of these unknowns. It wasn't until would be human leaders or shamans utilized these impulses by the lesser masses that religious worship became a method of power and control thus ushering in the potential for evil to manifest itself in religion.

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