I mentioned in the comments of a previous post that when I had a little time to spare I would talk a bit more about the argument from evil (for those who were curious about it). So, it’s a lazy sunday morning, and I thought I’d do this during the requisite drinking of my three cups of coffee.
Okay, let me reiterate the argument from evil (and evil basically counts as all of the suffering and misery caused by human sin and via natural causes — earthquakes and diseases and such):
1. If God exists, he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent.
2. If God, is omniscient, he knows when any evil is occurring (or about to occur).
3. If God is omnibenevolent, he would want to prevent all evil.
4. If God is omnipotent, he could prevent all evil.
5. So, if God existed, there would be no evil. (1−4)
6. There is evil in the world.
7. Therefore, God cannot exist. (5,6)
So, for God to allow suffering would be akin to if I witnessesed some human suffering (say, someone getting hit by a car and now bleeding in the street), had it completely within MY POWER to save this person (by calling an ambulance), but I walk by and do nothing. If I did such a thing, I would surely be seen as cold-hearted and cruel — and any all-benevolent being would not do the equivalent by allowing so much suffering to exist in the world.
There are several ways to try to counter this argument. The first is to deny the Judeo-Christian claims at work here: one could try to deny that God, if he exists, must possess these three features. Perhaps he is not fully omnipotent (there are certain things he just cannot do), or perhaps he is not really omnibenevolent. So, granted, this argument only denies a Judeo-Christian concept of God, and only successfully can show that it is this conception that cannot exist. And it is this conception that those who present this argument worry about, since, in Western philosophy, it is the Judeo-Christian concept that Philosophy of Religion has centered around. So, the ultimate problem with denying that God, is, say, omnibenevolent, is that it flies in the face of what many of us concieve God to be — and the God we are really worried about existing. If it turns out that God is really quite mean and nasty — would that be the God that we care exists? And if God is really not all-powerful, would that be the God that is worth worshipping? I mean, you can get around the argument by claiming that he isn’t all three of these things, but then one wonders whether it is really comforting or meaningful to imagine that, if God exists, he is not all these three things.
Secondly, you can try to say that evil doesn’t really exist — that it is just our perception of human suffering that makes us think that it is a bad thing. But again, this seems to fly in the face of the conception of most Western religion — if you believe in something like heaven, then you concieve of it to be a much better place than here. And if it is paradise, as compared to here, then this place cannot already be perfect — there must be something bad here to make heaven a better place. Secondly, if there is really no evil here that needs to be prevented or alleviated, then we should not feel morally obligated to help those who are suffering, or being mistreated, or starving to death, etc. But that seems ridiculous — of course we recognize that those things are just horrible, and if we are good people, we should try to alleviate that kind of suffering when we can. To deny that suffering and cruelty and misery are bad things seems ultimately counterintuitive.
So, apart from trying to deny these theistic principles that are intrinsic to Judeo-Christian conceptions of God and the world, the most promising premise for us to try to object to is (3) — that if God were omnibenevolent, then he would want to prevent all evil. Perhaps, even though he is all-good, he still wants to allow evil, because it serves some purpose. That seems to be a promising way to go, but here is one stickly little worry here — the fact that he is omnipotent. That is, in most cases in which we think that it is acceptable to allow suffering, that suffering is necessary to attain some better good — so, I cause my child a little amount of suffering by letting a doctor administer a painful shot. But this small amount of pain is necessary to achieve a greater good: my child’s health. Thus, I have a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering in this instance. The tricky thing is coming up with a morally sufficient reason for God to allow suffering. That is, if I were omnipotent, I could make my child well without having to give my child a painful shot — and to make my child go through the pain of getting a shot without having to do so is just cruel. So, since God is omnipotent, are there any supposed good things that come out of evil that God couldn’t have just brought about without allowing this evil? Coming up with a morally sufficient reason for God is harder than it looks — since he is all-powerful, he should be able to bring all the good things that might arise out of allowing evil with just a wave of his hand (or God-like equivalent), without having to let the evil occur. And if he does let the evil occur even though it doesn’t need to, then it looks as if he is just cruel.
But here is a possible way out: presumably, according to many conceptions of omnipotence, although God can make any logically possible thing occur, he cannot do the logically impossible (e.g., he cannot make 2+2=5). So, if evil were somehow logically necessary to bring about some good, then God would be justified in allowing it. One promising canditate is free will: That is, God could not have given us free will without us having the ability to choose to do evil. If he constructed it in such a way that we can only do good things, then how do we really have the choice to do bad? And, since God wanted us to have free will, he had to give us an open choice to do evil as well (although, note that, even if this objection works, it doesn’t do well to explain why God allows suffering that arises out of things that humans aren’t responsible for — like hurricanes and diseases). So, does this work?
Well, one thing a defender of the argument from evil could say is the following: God could have made us with such good natures that we simply never choose to do bad. We are just naturally filled with such good-will that we just always choose the right thing — even though we could do bad things, if we so chose. After all, part of the reason that we do evil is due to natural tendences — we have natural desires for sex and food and comfort, and the world is made such that we are often deficient in these things, so we are naturally led to do nasty things in order to secure these goods for ourselves. But if God made us without these desires, or made it such that they are always fulfilled, then we wouldn’t be tempted to do bad.
But, the objector may say, for God to make our natures such that we always choose the right thing is to deprive us of free will. We can only properly have free will if we can choose to do evil — and if we are constructed so that we never choose evil, then we don’t really have free will.
But, something to think about: God never chooses to do evil (if he is omnibenevolent), and presumably he never will. Does that entail that God isn’t free? If we want to say that God is free, even though he never chooses to do evil, then surely he could have made us the same way.
There are other objections I could go over — but, this entry is long enough as it is. If I get some responses back concerning other objections, then I’ll address those then. I finished my 3 cups of coffee and should go do some required philosophy. 😉
Sources note: Most of these responses to the objections mentioned here do NOT come origionally from me: I am paraphrasing considerations made by other philosophers, which include Nelson Pike (in “Hume on Evil”) and J.L. Mackie (in “Evil and Omnipotence”).