17 January 2016

The Problem of Evil - Part 1

I thought I would share some of the papers I wrote for philosophy class last semester--hopefully this series will be relatively interesting and not totally boring.  I'd love to hear any clarification questions or objections you might have--don't hesitate to comment :) I do love comments.


The problem of evil is stated as follows: How can God be both wholly good and wholly omnipotent in light of the existence of evil in the world? This argument is divided into two categories: the logical problem and the evidential problem. The logical problem is more rigorous, claiming that it is theoretically impossible that God can be both all-loving and all-powerful given the existence of evil.  The evidential problem states that, given the fact of evil, it is highly unlikely that an all-loving, all-powerful God could exist.  Given the complexity of this subject, I will not spend much time here arguing for the existence of God, since assuming that He exists presents enough problems for one paper.
Presupposing the existence of God, there are three possibilities to consider: 1) God is good, but for some reason cannot prevent evil, 2) God is all-powerful and evil, or 3) God is both good and powerful and the evil that we observe is part of His divine plan. A common theistic argument is that God, because He is all-loving, must allow humans beings the freedom to choose good and evil. The philosopher J.L. Mackie argues that God cannot give humans free will without limiting His omnipotence. He asks the question, “can an omnipotent being make things which he cannot subsequently control?”[1] and claims that this is a logical error that Christians constantly make about God. Love, by definition, demands the surrender of control; control, by definition, falsifies love. Perhaps God is loving, then, and it is his love that prevents him from being all-powerful.
However, if God is not the most powerful being in the universe, than it follows that there is some force out there more powerful than God. What is that force? We have no way of knowing, and for all our purposes we might as well call it God, and we are back where we started. If we allow that God exists, we must allow that he is all-powerful, or it undermines the definition of God. I will agree with Mackie, however, that it is impossible for someone to be both loving and controlling. But there is a difference between controlling and being in control, which is not only what the Christian doctrine claims but a verifiable truth. Consider this example:
Let us suppose a young boy catches a lizard out of the woods and decides to keep it as a pet. After a few months, the boy’s excitement wanes, and he begins to neglect the lizard. The boy’s father notices this and suggests that it is time for the boy to return the lizard to the forest. But the boy does not want to let go of his prize. At this point, the father has total power to intervene and order his son to release his pet. However, he decides to hold back and let the boy make his own decisions. A few weeks later, the lizard is dead. The boy is devastated to lose his pet, but the father uses this opportunity to teach his son that he cannot hold onto something that wants to be let go.
There are several questions I wish to pose from this example. First, do we agree that the father did the right thing? If the answer is yes, then it can be allowed that the father is good, at least in this isolated case. Second: did the father have total power to prevent the death of the lizard (which is guilty of no fault against the boy or the father) if he wished to do so? I think we can agree that the answer is yes.  From this example we can see that it is not impossible for a person to have the power to prevent suffering, abstain from preventing it, and yet still be good.
From this example we can see that Mackie’s problem of omnipotence is not the real issue. For the logical problem of evil claims that a wholly good and wholly benevolent being would want to eliminate evil in every instance, but it can be logically maintained that certain level of suffering is necessary, even if one had the power to prevent it. But one may argue that the lizard analogy is incongruous to the true nature of reality. Suppose again that a father sees his son abusing and neglecting his own brother. Seeing that both boys are his own offspring, how could we possibly say that the father is justified in allowing the abuse for the education of the abuser?  Many would agree that in this instance the father ought to intervene.
So perhaps our true situation is not God allowing the suffering of a lower organism (such as a lizard) for the benefit of a higher one. We will call this scenario A.  It appears that our actual situation (scenario B) is that God is allowing the suffering of an equal organism (a rationally thinking human) for the benefit of another rationally thinking human. This is where a line is drawn between the logical problem and the evidential problem. It is logically possible that the human condition is akin to scenario A: God could prevent the suffering, but it is a necessary predecessor to a greater good. However, the evidential problem states that we are in scenario B: the degree of evil that exists is so great that it is highly improbable that God could be justified in allowing it.  This then is the question that everything hinges on: is the level of evil in the world so great that there is no way a benevolent being could be behind it?

Tune in Friday for Part 2!

[1] J.L. Mackie “Evil and Omnipotence” 

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