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A discussion on the problem of evil in the world

The Problem of Evil The Problem of Evil is not a single problem, but rather a family of arguments for the non-existence of God. In its least ambitious form, the argument cites the evil and suffering we find in the world as compelling evidence that the world is not under the control of an omnipotent Deity, while allowing that the evidence is not decisive. In its most ambitious form, it presents the fact of evil as conclusive proof that God does not exist. Here I present a version of this ambitious argument.

I leave it up to you to construct and assess some more moderate version of the case. The argument operates with the traditional philosophical conception of God, according to which God is supposed to be an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent being; and before we begin, we need to say a word about omnipotence.

The claim that God is omnipotent can be understood in three ways. Our casual formulation has been to say that an omnipotent God is a god who can do absolutely anything. We might take this literally: A God's omnipotence consists in the power to bring about absolutely any state of affairs. Alternatively, we might take the claim as follows: B God's omnipotence consists in the power to bring about absolutely any logically possible state of affairs.

On this view, it a discussion on the problem of evil in the world in God's power to create unicorns and centaurs, along with horses and goats, since there is no contradiction or incoherence in the supposition that these things exist. Finally and least plausibly we might take the claim as a claim about physical possibility: C God's omnipotence consists in the power to bring about any physically possible state of affairs, i. On this view, God could easily have brought it about that the solar system contains an extra planet, since so far as we know this would involve no violation of any natural law.

But it would not be in his power to cause the sun to earth to reverse direction in its orbit around the sun, since that would involve a violation of the basic laws of motion. For our purposes, either A or B would do as an interpretation of the doctrine of divine omniscience. B is more orthodox, I believe, and I will proceed with this interpretation in mind.

The important point is to appreciate the difference between logical possibility and physical possibility or compatibility with the laws of nature. The argument as it is traditionally presented operates with a notion of "evil" that may strike some of you as obscure or misguided.

  1. To this objection, the atheist may respond in the form of a question. This earth is seen as a factory for making souls.
  2. The second, which can be labeled the indirect inductive approach, argues instead that theism can be shown to be unlikely to be true by establishing that there is some alternative hypothesis—other than the mere negation of theism—that is logically incompatible with theism, and more probable than theism.
  3. In later parts of the work, he discusses the problem of evil and concludes by arguing after all that the mixed evidence available supports the existence of a divine designer of the world, but only one who is morally neutral and not the God of traditional theistic religions. In a similar way, it can also happen that when someone gets very angry at God for such a perceived violation of all the principles of justice, fairness, and good order in the universe, they can also furiously turn their back on God.

For our purposes, however, it will suffice to consider only a very narrow class of evils. When I speak of an "evil" I shall mean a state of affairs that involves the suffering of an innocent human being. I am not at this point asserting that there are any innocent human beings, or that there is such a thing as human suffering.

Nor am I asserting that the suffering of animals and trees not mention the suffering of guilty human beings is not morally relevant. I am simply offering a stipulative definition of a somewhat technical term.

It is not unrelated to our ordinary understanding of the word; but it is more precise, and we shall see that precision is important in this area.

Problem of evil

By a natural evil I mean a state of affairs involving the suffering of an innocent human being that is not the direct consequence of any human action. A human evil, by contrast, is an episode of suffering caused by human activity. Intuitively, the human evils are the evils we inflict upon one another; the natural evils are the evils we suffer at the hands of nature, independently of our own collective agency.

The problem of evil as it is standardly presented concerns both sorts of evil. But the strongest version of the argument focuses on natural evil alone; and that is the version we shall discuss. I cannot give a convincing example here, but I can give you a sense of what I have in mind by considering some imperfect approximations to the idea.

When a doctor gives you a shot in order to vaccinate you against a disease, the momentary pain you suffer is an evil in our technical sense of the term assuming you are innocent, of course. But it is clearly justified by the future good it makes possible. Given our technological limitations, the pain is in a sense a necessary evil: Now the pain of vaccination is not a necessary evil in any absolute sense. A painful shot may be the only way for us to prevent the disease at this point in our history: So the painful shot would not be an example of an absolutely necessary evil.

On the other a discussion on the problem of evil in the world, if it could be shown that some great good could not possibly be achieved without some human suffering, then we should say that such suffering is to that extent necessary.

Much more could be said by way of explanation here. But I hope the notion will be clear enough for our purposes in what follows. By definition 2 A perfectly benevolent being would prevent any unnecessary natural evil if he could. Premise 3 An omnipotent being could prevent all unnecessary natural evil.

The Argument from Evil

Premise 4 Therefore, if there were a God, there would be no unnecessary natural evil. From 1, 2, and 3 5 But there is unnecessary natural evil. Premise derived from experience 6 Therefore, there is no God. From 4 and 5 The argument is valid. The only real question is whether we have reason to accept the premises. The first premise is a simple consequence of the definition of "God" that we have agreed to accept; so there is no room to quibble at this step.

Premise 3 seems rather hard to deny.

Theistic responses

Omnipotence is at least the power to bring about anything that is logically possible. But it's hard to think of a case of unnecessary human suffering the prevention of which would imply a contradiction or some other sort of logical impossibility.

The paradigm cases will be episodes of human suffering in the wake of floods, earthquakes, plagues and other natural disasters.

And it would seem to be a straightforward consequence of our understanding of divine omnipotence that an omnipotent deity could easily prevent this sort of suffering if he chose to do so. This leaves the theist with two plausible lines of response: He can deny premise 2 and maintain that divine benevolence is compatible with the existence of unnecessary natural evil, or he can deny the existence of such evil altogether.

Let's consider these options in reverse order: The Case for Premise 5 The claim that there exists unnecessary natural evil is really four claims in one: It is perverse to deny 5. It has sometimes been maintained e. Now there are interesting philosophical questions about whether there could be an illusion of pain.

If my arm has been amputated, I main have the illusory sense that I have a pain in my arm; but the illusion is a mistake about the location of my pain. The pain itself is perfectly real. But even if we grant that there is nothing self-contradictory in the suggestion that some apparent pains is illusory, still it seems absurd to assert this. Unless someone can give us a reason to take the suggestion seriously, I think we can dismiss this response to the Problem of Evil out of hand.

Recall that some of the victims of suffering are very small children -- children much too young to have done anything wrong, and hence much too young to have earned any punishment. It is sometimes said that the doctrine of original sin, according to which every human being inherits the moral taint that Adam and Eve incurred by their willful disobedience in Eden, implies that even the smallest children are morally guilty of a serious crime. But I confess that I don't understand how this could be.

The suggestion a discussion on the problem of evil in the world I might be morally responsible for someone else's transgression simply because he is my father seems to me no more intelligible than the suggestion that I might be morally responsible for the transgressions of someone who happens to look like me or to share my name. If someone were concerned to develop this response without simply appealing to the tradition and authority of the Church, that might be a very interesting project.

It is just barely possible that what we regard as natural evil is really the direct result of free actions of invisible malign spirits or demons. Someone who is willing to believe this can consistently deny the existence of natural evil in our technical sense.

Apart from this, I don't see how 5. To take this route is to take on the project of showing that each episode of natural evil is strictly necessary for the realization of some very great good -- a good that could not possibly have been realized by any less painful means. This is obviously a very ambitious project: The argument only requires a single instance of unnecessary natural evil for its cogency. Anyone who pursues this route will probably pursue a mixture of strategies.

On the one hand, she will try to give detailed accounts of the various goods that come from the most visible and salient natural evils we confront.

On the other, she will insist that even we cannot give such an account, this is most naturally explained by our own intellectual limitations. The universe is vast and God's plans are inscrutable. It is not surprising that we cannot easily see that good that comes of the evil we confront in every case.

I will not suggest that this line cannot be made convincing. I will simply point out some pitfalls along the way. It is sometimes said that the existence of evil is necessary so that we may no the contrast between good and evil.

But this is unconvincing for the following reasons: There is surely enough human evil to provide the incipient moralist with examples of badness. So the argument provides no "justification" for the existence of natural evil. It seems wrong to say we could not possibly acquire moral concepts unless there were real instances of evil in the world.

It may be that most of us do acquire moral concepts by being presented with instances of good and bad action. But it is surely conceivable that we should have acquired these concepts wholly through encounters with a discussion on the problem of evil in the world moral fictions -- fairy tells in which the bad guys perform evil acts.

  1. The alternative course is to grant that there are facts about intrinsically undesirable states of the world that make it prima facie unreasonable to believe that God exists, but then to argue that belief in the existence of God is not unreasonable, all things considered.
  2. Essentially, there are three ways in which one might attempt to defend this inference. With this sort of view in mind, an apologist might try to suggest that when we speak of God's goodness, we mean simply his unwillingness to violate an obligation.
  3. An Introduction to the Issues. Though each of these arguments presents a different problem for the theist to explain, a different reason for believing that atheism is true, each shares a common form.
  4. Thus, some of those dissatisfied with Plantinga's merely defensive response to the problem of evil may find these more constructive, alternative responses more attractive. They will be yours for food.

Indeed it is conceivable that the concepts of good and evil should have been innate. We do not have to learn how to breathe. Distinguishing between right and wrong might have been similarly instinctive or natural. So there is little to be said for the view that real natural evil is a strictly necessary condition for the acquisition of moral concepts. It is sometimes said that the reality of natural evil is a necessary condition for the exercise of certain virtues, such as courage, compassion, concern for the well being of others, and so on.

A world in which we were permanently protected from harm would be a world in which these good things would have no place. So perhaps the evils we experience are a necessary condition for the realization of these great goods. But this response, like the previous one, ignores the fact that human evil seems fully sufficient for this purpose.