The Problem of Evil (also referred to as “The Argument from Evil”) has traditionally been considered one of the strongest arguments against the existence of God. Even theists have oftentimes admitted that the existence of evil is difficult to reconcile with the existence of the Christian God. In this essay, I will evaluate this argument to determine if it lends any support to the atheistic worldview.
Evil and God
The Problem of Evil is an argument that specifically attacks the concept of an omnipotent, omniscient, and all-good God. For if God were not omnipotent, one might suppose that evil exists because God cannot do anything about it. And if God were not omniscient, one might suppose that evil exists because God does not know about it or does not know how to end it. And if God were not all-good, one could suppose that evil exists because of supposed character flaws, such as selfishness or pride, inherent within the nature of God, or, simply that God enjoys watching His creatures suffer to whatever degree. Thus, it can be easily recognized that the Problem of Evil specifically targets a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. The Christian theist thus finds himself vulnerable to this argument, for very few Christians could, or should dare to, deny that God possesses these three attributes.
At this juncture, the Christian can take one of two steps. The first is to admit ignorance, to admit that they cannot understand what reasons God may have for allowing evil to occur. However, it might be argued, that such a fact does not necessarily count against the existence of God. For, as limited human agents, it is impossible for us, in principle, to fully or perhaps even partially understand the motivations and reasoning for God’s actions. We are separated intellectually, morally, and in capacity by such a tremendous chasm that our attempted efforts to “evaluate” God’s actions may seem at best, presumptuous and, at worst, absurd.
In a way, this analysis is largely correct. It does seem true that if God exists, then He is so much more powerful and intelligent that our attempts to evaluate Him may be severely limited. However, I do not view the previous line of argument to be a good escape for the Christian theist. There are three large problems with taking this route in order to escape the Problem of Evil.
Firstly, this line of argument seems to presuppose the existence of God as confirmed, or at least relatively probable. In my view, such a position can be validated by other arguments. However, to the theist who does not have a confident intellectual basis for the existence of God, or for the non-theist who has little reason to suppose that there is a God, the Problem of Evil cannot be averted by assuming that there are unknown and unknowable reasons for God to permit evil, since the very existence of God in general is in question.
Secondly, although it may be true that it is difficult for us to rationally assess God’s motivations and actions, it is nonetheless our intellectual responsibility to put forth our best effort. No progress will be made if we simply wave the white flag when faced with difficult intellectual issues. Furthermore, it does seem reasonable to suppose that we could make some reasonable speculation as to the potential or actual motivations of God. As human beings, we possess intelligence, power, and morality. Although it may be the case that the our degree of such attributes is much lower than that of God’s, (i.e. God is much more intelligent, powerful, and morally good), it is still quite possible that we can understand His basic motivations based on these attributes.
Thirdly, it seems to me that God would give His creatures at least some ability to rationally evaluate the world they live in. It is at least intuitively reasonable to suppose that God has an overriding reason for giving us an ability to interpret the world. Otherwise, what is the point of giving us rational faculties at all? And wouldn’t God want His creatures to understand Him and His ways to at least some degree? If God gave us the ability to understand the world, then we would also have an ability to understand God’s actions.
Thus, it seems to me, this first method does not provide a promising escape for the Christian theist. The second step a theist can take, however, is to develop a theodicy, which is a defense of the existence of an all-good God in spite of the existence of evil.
The remainder of this essay will focus on a general theodicy, which I believe can satisfactorily answer the Problem of Evil.
Logical vs. Evidential
Before I begin defending my own theodicy, an important distinction must be made between what is known as the ‘logical’ problem of evil vs. the ‘evidential’ problem of evil. According to the logical version of the Problem of Evil, the existence of God and evil are absolutely incompatible. There is a contradiction in the claim that God exists and that evil exists in the world. Hume stated the dilemma as such:
“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?” 1
The argument could be put this way:
1.If God exists, then He is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good.
2.God, as such, would have the knowledge, power, and motivation to eliminate evil.
4.Therefore, God does not exist.
Now, the Christian theist is committed to the principle in (1). Therefore, the only line of attack for the theist is to disprove (2) or (3). Very few people would question the existence of evil, although some have claimed such, and therefore challenged premise (3).
This line of thought should be only briefly considered. It seems quite counterintuitive to claim that evil literally does not exist. If evil is nonexistent, then why do humans feel pain and grief of varying intensities? And if evil does not exist, then what does one call the acts of murder, torture, or rape? To classify these things as something other than evil seems absurd. And even if evil does not exist it certainly seems like it does, which causes stress and unhappiness in human beings, and so is a form of evil itself.
The only premise that the Christian can now attack is (2). And indeed it is quite flawed. It does not follow from God’s omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness that the world He creates will be completely free from evil. This is because some evil may lead to some greater good. A parent may spank a child, but that does necessarily cause us to question the parent’s love for that child. And as long as there is at least some small chance that the evil that exists in this world is for greater good, the logical version of the Problem of Evil is disproved. There is no contradiction in saying that God (as described in ) exists and at the same time saying that evil exists. Therefore, most non-theists have abandoned this version of the problem of evil.
The evidential version of the Problem of Evil, admits the mere possibility of the coexistence of God and evil, but argues that the amount and kind of evil this world endures disproves, or at least makes less likely, the existence of God. It is argued that the world experiences gratuitous evil, in other words, evil that is not for any greater or equal good. Gratuitous evil is the type of evil that God would have overriding reason not to make or permit. The argument can be best stated like so:
1.If God exists, He would not create or allow gratuitous evil.
2.Gratuitous evil exists.
3.Therefore, God does not exist.
I submit that the Christian theist must support premise (1). For it does seem unlikely to me that God would create or permit evil that served no purpose whatsoever. Whether or not God is morally guilty for allowing gratuitous evil to exist is a separate question, but it certainly seems that God has overriding reason to not permit its existence.
In my view, then, the evidential version of the Problem of Evil is a much stronger argument. It may be simple to give a possible reason for God to permit some evil, but it is much more difficult to give a plausible or likely reason God may have. Moreover, there is undeniably a large amount of evil one is forced to explain.
One more issue must be mentioned before a discussion of my theodicy can begin. Many of the reasons I list have to do with cause-effect relationships (i.e. some temporary evil has an effect which leads to some good). A common counter-argument to these sorts of claims is that God could interfere with the world to eliminate the evil while preserving the good. This argument often fails for other reasons, as I will argue in various spots below, but here I would like to make some preliminary comments about God’s interference in the world.
Now, it is quite apparent that the universe we live in is a rational one. Things happen according to the laws of nature in almost all occasions. In my view, this rational world reflects a rational Creator. If this is accurate, I think it could be argued that the Creator would wish to maintain a moderate level of interference in the world (I will refer to God’s interference as i throughout the remainder of this paper.)
If God’s i=0, then He would never interact with the world. He would be like the god of the Deists, who believe that He made the world and allowed it to run on its own. Is it plausible to suppose that a Creator might wish to act in this way? Yes, to a certain degree. Imagine in this case Jill, who creates a tiny ecosystem. She may wish to create the entire ecosystem and then let it run its course and simply observe what happens. This seems plausible. But, if the creatures in her ecosystem suddenly started to die, it is even more plausible to suppose that she might interfere in order to correct the problems with the ecosystem.
This brings us to the other extreme, where i=1, and God interferes in the world in every instance. Jill might wish to act in this way, to constantly tweak the ecosystem and try to solve all problems herself. This level of constant intervention may rob Jill of much of the enjoyment of creating the ecosystem in the first place, since much of the enjoyment involves watching the ecosystem develop and grow by itself.
Thus, it seems plausible that God would wish to maintain a level of i between 0 and 1. Furthermore, it seems to me that He would want to maintain a level closer to 0, in order to allow the world to operate rationally most of the time, for a couple reasons. First, a rationally operating universe can be known by science. Most people would admit that the growing knowledge we are gaining about the world we inhabit is intrinsically good, so it is very possible that God also finds it valuable. Second, He may withdraw much of His influence on the world due to man’s rebellion. While this may be a slightly ad hoc hypothesis, it is a very reasonable claim within the confines of Christianity. Furthermore, the claim is not at all unreasonable given the state of human creatures. Surely it must be admitted that humans frequently participate in morally bad actions, and it is also quite apparent that many people do not put their faith in God. On the hypothesis that God exists, it is quite reasonable to suppose that these facts show that humankind is in a state of rebellion against God. Third, it may simply be the case that, like Jill, God enjoys allowing His creation to operate mostly by itself. If my arguments here are sound, then the theodicy presented in this article is much stronger, although I believe it can survive without it.
An objection to this line of thinking may be that an all-loving God would not allow suffering to occur just because of his preference or desire to maintain a low level of i.
I submit that this response is very selfish. In fact, for a human creation to expect such special treatment is entirely ludicrous. Should we actually expect or require God to please us even when doing so runs counter to His desires? I would personally not have the nerve to make such a request. 2 Furthermore, some reasons God has for allowing the world to operate rationally might actually be for the good of humans- such as the possibility of scientific discovery consequent of a rational and predictable universe.
My theodicy will attempt to show that it is at least somewhat plausible to maintain that the world contains no gratuitous evil. Below is a short summary of each argument, which I will defend in order.
A.Humans are responsible for a great portion of evil through their free will acts.
B.Suffering leads some to believe in and love God.
C.Suffering leads to character improvement and the possibility for higher-order goods.
D.Evil may increase man’s knowledge.
E.Evil may lead to some other form of resultant good.
F.Some evil may be punishment for the sins of men.
G.Other potential reasons.
A.Humans are responsible for a great portion of evil through their free will acts.
This response, known as the “free will defense”, has been employed for centuries, and I believe it to be one of the most powerful counters to the Problem of Evil.
As the argument goes, God created agents with the ability to make free will decisions. Thus, I can freely decide whether to continue writing this article, or to go get a glass of milk, or to go watch television. I continue writing this article because I choose to- not because I am forced to do so. And indeed the fact that I have a choice in the matter is very valuable to me.
It can be argued with little difficulty that God has a reason to value this free will, and to provide it to the agents He creates. 3 Without the ability to act freely, men would be like machines, mere automatons. But if God wishes to create agents with which He can have an intimate relationship with, it seems that He would have to give them free will.
Now, if it is true that I have the choice to write this article or get a glass of milk, then I also have choices in other areas of my life. For example, I can choose whether to be kind to someone or indifferent. I can choose whether to help or ignore someone. And I can even choose whether to forgive my fellow man or murder him. And the fact that I have these choices is good, even though I may make a choice resulting in some amount of suffering or evil.
This, of course, brings us right to the issue. For it can be seen clearly that there are many ways in which my free will could result in various forms of evil, some of great intensity. God cannot interfere without robbing me of the very thing He wishes to give me- the freedom to act as I will. Thus God, despite His omnipotence, cannot stop some evil from occurring in this world due to my free will actions.
So far I have simply argued that free will is valuable, but I would like to take the argument a bit further. A man locked in a box has free will. He can kick at the walls, he can scream, or he can do jumping jacks. He has free will, certainly, but his ability to exercise that free will is severely limited. He cannot interact with other agents or change anything about the world. And this state of affairs is of quite limited value.
That is why I will here make the stronger claim that God is not just interested in giving His agents free will, but rather what I refer to as “significant free will.” Significant free will simply means that an agent can choose to perform actions that will have significant consequences, good or bad. This ability to make significant choices can be extremely damaging- as when an alcoholic parent beats his child. His choice to drink heavily and abuse his child is unfortunate, but it is a necessary risk if God wishes to give humans significant free will.
The claim that significant free will is valuable is an important counter to an often-stated atheistic objection to the free will defense. Quite often, the atheist will claim that God could give us free will, but simply protect us from the consequences of our actions. Let’s say I wish to kill James, and I decide by my own free will to act on this urge. Now, God could not simply make me not want to kill James if He wished to uphold free will. On the other hand, he could quite easily empty my gun of any bullets, thus preventing my murder of James. And God could use this strategy for all, or almost all, instances of free will choices that have very bad consequences.
If my argument for significant free will is sound, however, it can be seen that God has a strong reason to avoid interfering in this case. The free will of a man in an enclosed box is almost useless, as is my own free will if God robs me of my ability to perform actions with significant consequences.
Two other important responses should be considered. There is the claim that “free will,” at least free will that could be considered valuable, does not or cannot exist. This is dealt with in Appendix I.
Additionally, many claim that God, whilst not interfering with significant free will, could have constructed us in such a way that we would respond in morally good ways in all or almost all situations. Although he cannot force me to forgive James when it is my inclination to kill him (without interfering with significant free will), he could have simply created a different person that would have responded to James with forgiveness. For an analysis of this argument, see Appendix II.
B. Suffering leads some to believe in and love God.
At first blush it may seem counterintuitive to suppose that suffering could cause some individuals to gain faith in God, particularly considering that the Problem of Evil is commonly considered the best argument against the existence of God. But it is important to remember that philosophical rumination is rarely the cause of one’s belief or lack thereof. Nevertheless, it seems that evil and suffering could still be a cause of disbelief because they could cause anger on the part of human agents. However, I contend that evil and suffering are actually one of the most important elements that lead humans to belief in God.
If the world contained no evil and humans experienced only pleasure, they would have little reason to search for God. Our needs and desires would be completely satisfied, and we would not have a need to search for a deeper meaning to life. Suffering brings life into perspective, allowing us to recognize our frailty and our need for deliverance from our flaws. So it is somewhat reasonable to suppose that some suffering and evil may lead some people to God. And inasmuch as this is the case, such evil is justified, because belief in God is more valuable than temporary happiness. 4
In fact, these speculations have been confirmed to a certain degree by empirical studies. Moreland and Craig 5 cite studies from Patrick Johnstone’s Operation World:
It is estimated that 20 million Chinese lost their lives during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Christians stood firm in what was probably the most widespread and harsh persecution the Church has ever experienced. The persecution purified and indigenized the Church. Since 1977 the growth of the Church in China has no parallels in history. Researchers estimate that there were 30-75 million Christians by 1990. Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.
The 12-year civil war, earthquakes, and the collapse of the price of coffee, the nation’s main export, impoverished the nation. Over 80% live in dire poverty. An astonishing spiritual harvest has been gathered from all strata of society in the midst of the hate and bitterness of war. In 1960 evangelicals were 2.3% of the population, but today are around 20%.
Ethiopia is in a state of shock. Her population struggles with the trauma of millions of deaths through repression, famine, and war. Two great waves of violent persecution refined and purified the Church, but there were many martyrs. There have been millions coming to Christ. Protestants were fewer than .8% of the population in 1960, but by 1990 this may have become 13% of the population.
Thus, the altogether reasonable supposition that suffering can lead people to belief in God is confirmed by these studies, and consequently even more plausible.
C. Suffering leads to character improvement and the possibility for higher-order goods.
Humans can easily recognize the symptoms of a person who faces little hardship in their lives. Such individuals are often referred to as “spoiled”, and they oftentimes display bad character traits such as selfishness and egotism. This is not necessarily true, but it does seem to be the case quite often. This suggests that hardship may potentially be beneficial for character development. 6
The Problem of Evil’s supporter could counter that God could find other ways to improve our character. One suggestion may be that He could simply create us with essences that were more conducive towards developing positive character traits. For this objection, see my discussion of creaturely essences in Appendix 2. However, it could also be contended that, even with the essences we now possess, God could somehow cause us to develop positive characteristics. But one must be careful here, if they do not wish to oppose the arguments developed in A for free will, particularly for significant free will. For whatever God did to “push” us towards positive character could not interfere directly with our free will. Moreover, one could argue that an excessive amount of influence could interfere with our significant free will, by making it much too easy for us to be morally good people.
Indeed, it seems plausible that there are other ways in which good character can be developed. However, suffering and hardship is one especially good way to develop character, and it may be the case that other methods of developing character are not as effective, so that additional character development resulting from hardship may be required in order to achieve a maximally good state of affairs.
Along similar lines, it can be effectively argued that evil and suffering lead to higher-order goods. Swinburne states:
“A further argument why God might permit natural evils to be suffered by men is the argument from higher-order goods, the argument that various evils are logically necessary conditions for the occurrence of actions of certain especially good kinds. Thus for a man to bear his suffering cheerfully there has to be suffering for him to bear.” 7
There are quite a few higher-order goods which one can identify: courage in the face of fear, persistence in the face of persecution, compassion towards the suffering of others, and so on. These higher-order goods are logically impossible in the absence of various forms of evil.
In response, it may be claimed that there only needs to be an appearance of evil in order for man to display higher-order goods. For example, a man can show compassion towards his fellow if he believes his fellow is suffering, whether or not such is the case. However, there are two serious problems with this argument. First of all, it is not true that all, or even most, higher-order goods can be achieved in the absence of any actual evil or suffering. If a man is to display persistence in the face of persecution, he must be actually persecuted. It might perhaps be argued that such persecution could be merely illusory. This merely sidesteps the issue, because the agent must experience sensations of pain, suffering, and mental anguish that are associated with persecution if he is to persist in the face of it. But if the agent is literally experiencing pain, suffering, and mental anguish, then he is experiencing evil, whether or not the perceived persecution is actually in some way illusory.
There are many other higher-order goods that can only be accomplished with what I will call first-hand suffering (i.e., suffering that is literally experienced by the agent and so thus cannot be unreal, since the suffering in itself necessarily exists.) Toughness despite pain, maintaining a good attitude despite grief, and courage despite fear are all examples of such first-hand suffering.
Strictly speaking, it is true that some higher-order goods could be possible without actual evil. Compassion can be shown towards others can be shown as long as it is believed that the other is suffering. However, in order for such a scenario to obtain, God would have to consistently and systematically deceive His creation as to the true nature of reality. It seems unlikely to me that God would wish to create such widespread deception, and it can be plausibly argued that doing so might be morally wrong.
In addition to higher-order goods such as those mentioned above, the existence of evil and suffering creates opportunity for men to join together and strive towards the greater good, which I believe is a higher-order good of even greater magnitude.
Take, for example, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Few would deny that the event was a significant evil, resulting in the death of thousands and the grieving of many more. However, this large evil allowed certain individuals to express their nobility in the fullest way possible. Firefighters risked their lives to save others, and members of one of the hijacked planes revolted and helped to save others from the attack. Not only did it bring out the best in some individuals, but it allowed many people to bind together in order to accomplish much more.
I can envision two responses to this argument- that tragedies are not the only means by which humans can join together to pursue a greater good, and that the tremendous evil associated with a tragedy is not worth the potential good.
As for the first argument, it is quite true that humans can join together for greater good without the existence of evil. However, it cannot be denied that tragedies are one type of opportunity for humans to work together, and inasmuch as such is valuable, tragedies are somewhat valuable. Additionally, I think it can be argued that tragedies are a particularly good opportunity for humans to display higher-order goods, and are much more valuable. The combined efforts of doctors to rid the world of a deadly disease is more valuable than the efforts of engineers to build a more efficient power plant. And the efforts of firefighters to rescue victims from a crumbling building is more valuable than the efforts of architects to build a taller skyscraper. In both these cases, the former is more valuable because the goal is more valuable. Additionally, as in the case with the firefighters entering a crumbling building, the action is more valuable because there is more potential risk for those that are trying to perform the noble task.
As for the second argument, it is true that tragedies are a rather intense form of evil, and they may not be worth the potential greater goods that they allow. However, it may be the case that the ability to display such greater goods is in fact very valuable. In any case, it need not be supposed that the possibility of higher-order goods is the only reason God has for creating tragedies or allowing them to occur. Some tragedies may be related to human free will decisions, such as the September 11 attacks. Other tragedies, however, are mostly unrelated to human decisions, such as earthquakes, floods, and the like. These are the events that are perhaps the most difficult for the theist to explain.
However, as I have argued already, it is feasible to suppose that the possibility of higher-order goods is quite valuable and, thus, one strong reason for tragedies to exist. But, there may be a multitude of reasons for such tragedies to occur, as per some of the other factors I mention in this theodicy.
If God were to eliminate all evil, none of these goods would be possible. And thus, it seems somewhat plausible that God would permit at least some such evil to exist.
D. Evil may increase man’s knowledge.
In the type of world we inhabit, it is possible for us to logically make inferences about what might happen in the future based on certain actions in the present. We can know that we will likely get very drunk in the near future if we continue to drink alcohol. Or, we can know that we will likely experience a sharp pain if we place our hand on a steaming tea kettle. These sorts of inferences are possible because the world that we live in is rational. A hot tea kettle will always scald us, and excessive drinking will always cause drunkenness. And so, it is quite possible that we shall attempt to avoid such things as burning and drunkenness, if these are indeed things we wish to avoid.
Our knowledge of consequence encompasses a large set of facts. We can know that living in California might be dangerous because of the area’s tendency to experience earthquakes, and we know that living in Florida can be dangerous because we know that this area experiences frequent hurricanes. We know that certain actions, such as wild sexual behavior or use of unclean needles can cause some diseases, and that other actions, such as living in an unsanitary environment or eating uncooked meat can lead to other diseases.
From whence does such knowledge come from? Surely the most sure knowledge comes from that which we experience. Most of us intimately know the feeling of scalding ourselves on a hot surface. Quite a few less of us intimately know that diseases can result from unprotected sexual intercourse or the use of unclean needles. However, almost all of use know someone with such a disease, or have heard of numerous people contracting such diseases. In either case, experience is our most sure form of knowledge, whether this experience is first-hand or not.
And it can easily be seen that first-hand knowledge is more valuable than second-hand knowledge. Thus we more intimately and surely know the consequences of unprotected sex if we have actually contracted a disease from such an action. Our second best form of knowledge would be second-hand- thus if we actually knew someone who had unprotected sex and contracted a disease, we would relatively sure of the consequences. Even less sure knowledge is gained if the source is third-hand. Perhaps you know a friend who has a friend who had unprotected sex and contracted a disease. Or, perhaps you have heard on the news of this occurring to someone else. This knowledge is indeed valuable, but not nearly as likely to cause a change in your own actions (i.e., discontinuing your participation in unprotected sex) than either of the first two.
It can also be clearly seen that our knowledge of consequence can be much surer if there are multiple cases. Our knowledge of the effects of alcohol become more confirmed the more instances we have in which our own excessive drinking causes drunkenness. And the more people we know or have heard about who have contracted a disease because of unprotected sex, the surer our knowledge that unprotected sex is potentially dangerous.
As we have seen, the proximity of some consequence to our own selves, and a larger amount of occurrences of a particular consequence can give us surer and surer evidence that certain actions can cause certain unwelcome results. And so, we have here a significant argument for the existence of evil as something necessary for humans to grow in knowledge of the world around them. Thus, our experience- first, second, or third hand- of certain bad consequences can help us to rationally avoid participating in the antecedent causes. And since the more evil consequences we experience the surer our knowledge and the more likely our avoidance of the cause, a great amount of evil may be explainable due to this factor.
It might be argued that this argument does not solve anything, for it postulates the existence of evil to explain how we can avoid further evil in the future. But why have evil at all? This apparent difficulty can be resolved by adding a few more reasonable premises dealing with the way God may wish to create the world. For, it seems plausible that God would wish to create a world in which free agents (like humans) had the ability to choose between good and evil, between inflicting harm on fellow agents through intentional acts or negligence or bringing pleasure upon fellow agents. It is such a world that we live in. And in such a world, agents must have knowledge about good and evil and its causes in order to rationally choose which course to take.
At this juncture, the supporter of the Problem of Evil could claim that such knowledge could easily be achieved in other ways. For instance, God could verbally give us such knowledge. Thus, before we were about to crash our car, God could simply tell us that we must slow down or face death. Most humans would consider such to be good enough evidence to suppose that they should slow down. However, this scenario could potentially involve two problems. First of all, it would result in a world in which all or at least the vast majority of agents would be forced to recognize the existence of God. As I argue HERE, such a situation could have bad consequences of its own. Secondly, this world might be one in which humans were robbed of a great amount of significant free will, as I argued in A. Thus, it is unlikely that God’s direct verbal interference in the world would result in a maximally good state of affairs.
Another argument might be that God could simply give us an instinctual knowledge that certain events would result in evil. Thus, we could intuitively know, completely apart from experience of any kind, that touching a steaming tea kettle will cause pain. But again, such a state of affairs would not allow humans to exercise much of their significant free will. Additionally, it seems like it may be impossible for humans to “know” about pain without ever experiencing it. Pain is by definition something that must be experienced. There is simply no way that God could give us any sort of “knowledge” about pain completely apart from our ever experiencing it. While it may be true that we would only need a small portion of pain in order to understand what pain is like, some pain and suffering is still required.
Moreover, it seems that the pursuit of knowledge of the world around us in order to prevent evil (particularly evil that may be inflicted upon fellow agents) is a higher-order good that is in itself valuable. So, even though touching a hot tea kettle is an undesirable experience, the fact that we can use instances such as those in order to grow in our knowledge of how to help ourselves and, more importantly, others is valuable enough to justify the pain.
E. Evil may lead to some other form of resultant good.
Almost all of the previous factors have argued that evil could lead to some greater good, these goods being knowledge of God, character improvement, and knowledge of the world. However, here I will argue that some evil can simply lead to some form of good later on, good in this case being quantified by its increase in the happiness of human agents.
Most men have experienced a seemingly horrible scenario that turned out for the best. We oftentimes find ourselves expressing gratitude for the trials we faced, because they resulted in good that probably could not have been achieved otherwise. For example, one may experience depression and anxiety from getting fired, but the firing may open up job opportunities that would have been overlooked otherwise. Or one may experience severe pain from a broken leg, but the resulting therapy sessions may lead to a new friendship with somebody you meet while recovering.
The previous examples involve scenarios where the agent is aware, or at least could be aware, of the good that resulted from the suffering. But it is equally possible that there might be cases where the good, or prevention of further evil, may be unseen by the agent. Imagine the following scenario.
In one possible world (we’ll call this world A), Jim breaks his leg in a terribly painful football injury. For months he is inconvenienced and in pain from this injury, and he sees no good come from it. But let us suppose that in world B, Jim does not break his leg. Due to the fact that he is quite healthy and able, he drives home from the football game, but is involved in a horrible crash, involving the death of another driver. Thus, despite the fact that Jim must suffer a broken leg, it seems obvious that world A is actually the preferred world, by both Jim and by the other driver who is killed in world B.
One could easily imagine millions of such scenarios. In any of these cases, it may be that the agent (Jim) prefers world A, another agent prefers world A (the driver, or the friends and family of the driver), or that God prefers world A for purposes of justice and harmony in creation. It may be the case that in a certain scenario, the agent may prefer world B but another agent or group of agents may prefer world A. In these cases, God must make a judgment as to which world is preferred. But in either world he actualizes, there will be some form of pain and suffering that will seem gratuitous in the eyes of the agents.
And now, once again, it may be objected that God could simply interfere with the general course of things in order to prevent both instances of evil. For example, he could prevent Jim’s leg from breaking while simultaneously causing his vehicle to break down, so that he is unable to get into an accident. But this again comes back to the issue of God’s level of i in the world. As I have argued before, it may be the case that for one reason or another, God prefers to maintain a low level of i. If that is the case, then the issue of balancing the evil in the world becomes an extraordinarily complicated endeavor. This is because there is not only Jim and the driver to worry about in this world, but in fact there are billions of individuals in the past, present, and future, that are intricately involved with other agents. At a more complicated level, world B may seem like the worse world of the two. But what if the driver that is killed in B is a reckless individual who would one day in the future drive drunk and end up killing even more agents? Even that situation is potentially preferable, if it is the case that those people he kills would have collectively resulted in an even larger amount of death and misery due to their later actions. There is just no way for us to even begin to understand which scenario is preferable.
Even if God has no problem with an unlimited amount of i, it may be the case that it is impossible to avoid such cause and effect scenarios. Taking our example further, suppose God providentially causes Jim’s car to break (we will call this world A*). This may prevent him from driving for the time being, but it could potentially cause problems further down the road. Perhaps he will get in a fatal accident four years down the road in world A*. And the atheist could push the issue further, and claim that God could simply providentially prevent the future crash in some other way. But the prevention of this future crash may cause other even more severe problems, so God would have to intervene again. And so on and so forth, until all cause and effect evil were eliminated.
There are two problems with this scenario. First of all, it is not necessarily possible for God to eliminate all of the evil in this fashion. For it is such a complicated nexus of cause and effect relationships that eventually God may have to interfere with the world in every instance. But even if He did, it may simply be impossible for God to eliminate all cause and effect evil, because the interferences would cause other problems that, at a certain point, could not be reduced any further, and at least some evil would remain. Consider that in our example we have only considered car crashes and the possibilities associated with certain drivers causing certain accidents in the future. But the scenario is undoubtedly much more complicated, for car crashes are only one sort of evil. There are millions of other potential ways that Jim, the other driver, or other agents involved in the different scenarios could cause some sort of evil in any of the worlds. Complicating matters further, God is not simply attempting to balance the lives of a few individuals, but rather a planet filled with over 6 billion individuals, many of whom are intricately involved in the lives of hundreds of others. God, in His omniscience, is able to keep track of this intricate balance, but it still may be the case that it is simply impossible to avoid all cause and effect evil even if God were to interfere in every instance in the world.
The second problem with the hypothesis that God could simply intervene is even more crushing to the Problem of Evil’s supporter. According to A, human agents all have free will to act as they choose in the world. As I argue there, God has granted us not only free will to theoretically act as we choose, but what I refer to as “significant free will”, in that our choices can actually matter because God allows the consequences of our actions to be realized to at least some degree, whether these consequences are good or bad. So, if God still desires to allow human agents significant free will (and I would assume that most human agents would also desire such a thing), then God cannot simply interfere in every case in some sort of way. But, even if He could, then He could not stop human agents from freely choosing some sort of action (or, potentially, even belief 8 ) in response to His interferences with the world. If God interferes in world A* and causes Jim’s car to break down, it may cause Jim to make free will choices that he would otherwise not, and these free will choices may be hazardous to himself and to others to varying degrees. If God wishes to maintain significant human freedom, it seems inevitable that some cause and effect evil must occur.
Note that this scenario revolves mostly around the use of evil (Jim’s broken leg) to prevent further evil (a fatal car accident). But there are possibly also countless scenarios in which the first evil actually causes equal or greater good in the future (such as, Jim’s broken leg resulting in a friendship that is more valuable than Jim’s temporary pain and inconvenience.) In such a case, God has even more reason for allowing the evil to occur. As in the previous example, one might claim that God could prevent Jim’s broken leg but somehow allow the friendship to develop, perhaps allowing them to meet in a different venue. But it is not at all certain that the same friendship would develop if Jim were to meet the person in a different way. Nor can God somehow cause the friendship to develop, unless He interferes with Jim’s significant free will, which I have argued previously that He has good reasons to avoid doing.
F. Some evil may be punishment for sins of men.
It is a sad fact that humans are quite often responsible for wrongdoing, in things both small and large. Humans lie, cheat, steal, and murder. And it would be quite unfair indeed if these acts went unpunished. Thus, God may have reason to create or permit evil in order to punish humans for their wrongdoing.
Some may argue that a God of love would not punish humans with evil and suffering, or would find another way to change us for the better. As to the first charge, I find no difficulty in supposing that God, despite His loving nature, would decide to punish humans for their sins, even if there is no rehabilitative advantage in such punishment. Some crimes simply deserve punishment. Most men have, at times, felt distressed or discouraged by the fact that someone else has gotten away with some wrongdoing. There is a deep inner sense within us that cries out for justice, and I think it is reasonable to suppose that such justice is a good thing.
As for the second charge, it is not entirely obvious that there are any “better” ways for God to make justice. Justice can only be achieved if wrong actions are punished and right actions are rewarded. If there is another way to achieve justice, it may be the case that it is not as effective or complete as it is when actual punishments are utilized. 9
A final objection to this line of thinking may be that God punishing us for our wrongdoing is not necessary because there is already a significant portion of evil and suffering in the world. Let’s say that a certain evil exists in the world, perhaps due to the free will act of another human being, as in A. It may be the case that this evil is doubly useful, if the evil that occurs as the result of the free will choice also directly or indirectly causes the punishment of the sinner. Thus, there would be no need for God to punish us further.
This does in fact seem to be correct, but it does not completely discredit F. For, it may be the case that some humans deserve punishment above and beyond the evil and suffering that exist due to other factors. Furthermore, some (though not all) punishment that God delivers may be directly correlated with the sin. This may lead to genuine character improvement, as in C. Or, this may simply prevent the agents involved in such sin to avoid doing something similar in the future for pragmatic reasons. Thus, some punishment may have a significant rehabilitative effect, and thus be quite valuable.
G. Some other reasons God may have for permitting evil.
In my opinion, all of the previous factors (1) are quite plausible and (2) potentially explain a large chunk of the evil in this world. However, in this section I will consider what I call “minor factors” for the existence of evil. These factors are minor either because I am not entirely confident that they are plausible accounts of evil, or because it seems that they are only capable of explaining a small portion of the evil the world endures.
Angels and Demons
One such factor is the free will actions of angels, or similar beings. Plantinga argues that it is possible that angles are responsible for much of the natural evil (i.e., earthquakes, disease) that occurs in the world. 10 For reasons similar to those in A, God has given angels free will, and they sometimes use this free will for evil purposes.
Strictly speaking, it is possible that this account is quite accurate. However, I am not inclined to give this defense much credibility. Swinburne argues, correctly I think, that such an hypothesis merely makes it more difficult to support the base theistic hypothesis. 11 Without such a defense, our goal is merely to support the existence of God. But if we wish to utilize the angel defense, we now are trying to prove a more complicated hypothesis, that both God and angels exist.
This hypothesis also seems to be extremely ad hoc- there is little or no reason to believe such a scenario. It may well be true, but I don’t think we are justified in believing that the angel defense is sufficient to escape the Problem of Evil.
Full Range of Experience
“A related argument is that it is good that men should have experience of a full range of possible experiences. A world in which we did not know (except in the most formal way) of the logical possibilities of pain and disease, of rejection of lovers, of the desolation of orphans, etc., would be a world in which we would know little of the logical possibilities…A man looking back over his life may well be grateful for at any rate some of the pain which he has suffered and the emotional crises which have been his, not just because of the future benefits (e.g. in the way of coping with new troubles) which they bring in an imperfect world, but because of his exposure to and contact with the harsh possible realities.” 12
This response seems to justify, at best, only a small portion of evil and suffering. If this argument is correct, I would assume that it simply provides God with an additional reason to permit a certain evil. In any case, it seems hard to believe that men would prefer a world of hardship to a world of complete or near-complete bliss.
A similar argument is that pain contrasts with pleasure in a way that the former increases the perceived value of the latter. Food and drink are much more appreciated when one has experienced hunger and thirst, pleasurable sensations are much more appreciated when they are contrasted with pain. Thus, evil and suffering accentuate the pleasures of this world.
As in the previous argument, I can hardly see this defense justifying any significant type of suffering. However, it is feasible to suppose that this is an additional reason for God to permit suffering. For example, if God had reason to permit Jim breaking his leg, the fact that suffering accentuates pleasure might further justify His permitting the evil.
Working of the Natural World
Occasionally, theists argue that natural disasters occur because they are the natural outcome of the laws of nature. Earthquakes occur because of plate tectonics, which is a result of the fact that water erodes rocks, and so on. If these fundamental laws were changed so as to eliminate earthquakes and other natural disasters, the world might either be incapable of supporting life or else actually worse off.
For this argument to work, we must assume that God wishes to maintain a very low level of i, or that He values a completely rational world so much that He is willing to allow human suffering due to it. These concepts, I think, are defensible, but they are not immune to criticism. Furthermore, although an atheist may grant that many factors must be balanced to create a sustainable world, God, as an omnipotent and omniscient being, should be able to figure out a more optimal state of affairs. 13
However, if this argument does work, it seems to explain a great deal of the evil in the world.
According to a minority of scholars, God’s omniscience does not imply complete knowledge of all future events. Gregory Boyd states,
“Reality… is composed of both settled and open aspects. Since God knows all of reality perfectly, [the open-theism view], the sovereign Creator settles whatever he wants to settle about the future, and hence he perfectly foreknows the future as settled to this extent. He leaves open whatever he wants to leave open, and hence he perfectly foreknows the future as possible to this extent. 14
If the open-theism view is correct, then God may simply be unaware of some of the evils that are about to occur. On this view, we need not conceptualize God as intimately aware of all the suffering that occurs. However, open-theism is a rather questionable view, embraced by a significant minority and facing several theological objections, and so I am hesitant to accept this view or to rely on it as a part of a successful theodicy. However, open-theism view is not out of the question, and so God’s lack of foreknowledge could possibly be a reason for the evil that occurs.
I have now developed a theodicy and defended it against quite a few objections, but the issue is far from over. For the remainder of this article, I will discuss some auxiliary issues relevant to the Problem of Evil.
Natural Evil vs. Moral Evil
When dealing with the Problem of Evil, a distinction is generally made between what is known as moral evil and natural evil. Generally speaking, natural evil is considered to be the most difficult for theists to explain, since it is oftentimes conceded that all or most moral evil is explainable in terms of the free will defense. Natural evil, such as earthquakes, diseases, and birth defects seem to make little sense, because humans are not responsible for these evils. 15
The advantage of the theodicy here is that there are multiple solutions to the problem of natural evils, and these separate solutions reinforce one another and are therefore much more effective. For example, consider the occurrence of an earthquake that results in the death of thousands of people. What explanation can there be for this?
Some of the victims may have been deserving of punishment. The catastrophe may create the possibility for human cooperation and higher-order goods. The grief some experience at the tragedy may build moral character, and could potentially cause some individuals to gain faith in God. The tragedy may contribute in some important way to man’s knowledge of suffering and how to avoid it. Or, finally, the catastrophe could have other good effects in the long term due to unforeseeable future events.
Supporters of the Problem of Evil frequently participate in what I call the “divide and conquer strategy.” They consider each separate factor by itself, and claim that it cannot account for a certain type of evil A, and then combat another factor by claiming that it cannot account for evil B. But the question is not whether or not one factor can account for all evil, but whether all factors combined can account for all evil. And, it is the nature of this theodicy that it is strongest when it is considered in entirety. 16
One frequent objection to Christian theodicies is that they do not account for the pain suffered by animals. Animals (supposedly) have no free will and will apparently not inherit eternal life, so there are very few reasons to suppose that their suffering is justified. However, some of the factors in this theodicy still apply in these cases. For example, as I argue in D, the knowledge humans gain by witnessing the suffering of fellow animals is a greater good. Animal suffering also leads to the possibility of higher order goods, and increases the responsibility humans have for maintaining the health of the planet. Furthermore, some animal suffering may lead to some other form of good later on.
Oftentimes, a particular type of animal suffering is mentioned. The most common scenario envisioned is that of a fawn, trapped in a forest fire where no one can know of her suffering, forced to painfully endure several days until death finally relieves her. What sort of reason could there possibly be for such suffering?
Well, first I will mention that I think there are several considerations which may help explain the suffering. Firstly, if it is true that God desires to maintain a low level of i, as I argued earlier, then God has at least some reason to not interfere. Secondly, the fact that there is gratuitous evil that really occurs may conceivably increase our sense of responsibility towards ourselves, our fellow man, and the creatures that inhabit this planet with us, since we know that there are such unfortunate consequences. Thus, for example, we may be further moved to attempt to put out forest fires due to the fact that we know that “gratuitous” suffering may occur as a result and that God will not interfere with such suffering.
However, I would like to bring forth another point that is quite curious indeed. For the envisioned suffering is literally suffering of which none are aware (if we were aware of the suffering, then the theodicy provided already would be much more capable of explaining the reason for the suffering, because virtually all of the factors mentioned so far could arguably apply). But, if we are literally not aware of such suffering, how do we actually know it exists? Part of the definition of the suffering is that we are not aware of it nor will we ever become aware of it! Ironically, then, this argument is impossible to prove, since the type of suffering it requires is in principle undetectable.
In fact, it is entirely possible that God does interfere in such scenarios. Personally, I am for some reason disinclined to believe it. But if the only difference between a world A in which our fawn suffers and world B is that God intervenes and prevents the suffering in world B, then I submit that these worlds appear to us to be exactly the same. There is no way for us to know whether or not God interferes in these cases, since a world in which He did would seem exactly like a world in which He didn’t (such as, presumably, ours).
Another type of objection to the theistic account of evil is that it purportedly leads to an absurd conclusion- that evil and suffering are things to be valued rather than hated, that we should even pursue evil and suffering for ourselves and our fellows. However, this conclusion is absurd, for none of the defenses given claims that evil itself is something good, only that some evils can potentially lead to good. We are not omniscient creatures, so we can rarely perform or permit evil with confidence that it will result in greater good, although we do in some instances. For example, we sometimes subject criminals to the death penalty, in large part because we may believe (correctly or not) that doing so will result in an overall greater good, even though it is still a form of evil to kill someone and it is still a form of suffering to be killed. As this example shows, however, the fact that we may perform “evil” in order to accomplish the greater good does not imply that we should do so all the time or even most of the time. We are simply not intelligent enough to predict with any sort of accuracy the likely long-term results of our actions, so it is advised to always perform good acts.
Furthermore, it is quite obvious that, though evil can bring greater good, there is a balancing act that must be achieved. For instance, as I argue in B, some degree of suffering may result in more widespread belief in and love of God. But it is clear that there might be a limit to such a thing. If God completely engulfed our lives in constant pain and misery, we may have even less reason to believe in Him and love Him then we would if we were all pampered creatures.
Finally, some of the greater goods described in this theodicy have to do precisely with elimination of evil as a noble pursuit. As I argue in C, the ability for humans to individually and collectively fight against evil is a greater good that would be impossible without the evil. But this clearly gives us good rationale for attempting to fight the evil even though it is theoretically possible that such evil might actually result in greater good. In sum, there is no reason to suppose that this theodicy supports the notion that we should promote or permit suffering or evil. 17
Heaven as a Possible World
John L. Mackie brings up a good point when he states:
“For at least some theists this difficulty is made even more acute by some of their further beliefs: I mean those who envisage a happier or more perfect state of affairs than now exists, whether thy look forward to the kingdom of God on earth, or confine their optimism to the expectation of heaven. In either case they are explicitly recognizing the possibility of a state of affairs in which created beings always freely choose the good. If such a state of affairs is coherent enough to be the object of a reasonable hope or faith, it is hard to explain why it does not obtain already. 18
This is an interesting point, but it fails to distinguish between a possible world and the outcome of a possible world. For, according to Christian theology, heaven is actually the result of this world. The objector claims that God could “skip” this stage of existence and create heaven from scratch, but this simply assumes that the stage we are living in right now is somehow meaningless, at least in relation to the eventual existence of heaven. However, there are many plausible reasons to suppose that heaven would not work without a former stage, such as that we are living in right now.
First, heaven requires that all or nearly all human free choice decisions be for the good. Presumably, humans freely choose the good in heaven because they are compelled to do so by their love of God. However, it may be the case that this true love and commitment can only be achieved in a world such as the one we live in.
Secondly, God’s justice may preclude Him from allowing sinful humans to occupy heaven. Thus, this world allows us a chance to gain salvation and be justified in God’s eyes.
These suggestions may or may not be accurate, but in any case the point is that heaven is the result of a possible world, not a possible world itself, and as long as this is at least possibly true, Mackie’s argument fails to carry weight.
God’s Right to Permit or Inflict Suffering
Many of the factors in this theodicy are based upon a primarily utilitarian ethical point of view. Utilitarianism states that the morally good action is the one that increases overall happiness and pleasure and decreases overall misery and pain. It is easy to see that many of the arguments I have offered thus far have employed such reasoning in order to justify some evil.
However, there are some objections to utilitarian ethics. Consider a scenario in which four patients in a hospital are in desperate need of an organ transplant, and one other patient, who is relatively healthy, has all of the organs necessary to save the other four. Should the doctors conspire to kill our fifth patient in order to ensure the likely survival of four other persons? Utilitarianism seems to say that we should, but most persons would be rather uneasy about making such a decision.
However, regardless of whether it is actually morally right for the doctors to conspire against the fifth patient, there are a number of striking differences between human creatures and God that cause us to question the analogy.
First of all, and most importantly, God possesses complete knowledge about the universe and the consequences of any action, whereas human agents simply have no clear picture as to the result of their actions. In my view, this is why humans may need to refrain from strict utilitarianism- we simply cannot know whether or not our actions are actually in the long-term best interest of humankind. It is true that we must often make the most rational decision, which seems to have the best chance of increasing the overall goodness of the world, but the decision to kill an innocent man for the sake of others is no small decision, and thus may be out of the range of acceptable actions for human agents. God, on the other hand, has complete knowledge of the consequences of allowing one agent to suffer for the good of another, and thus is in a much better epistemic position to make a judgment on the matter.
Secondly, in our example the doctors seem to have no right to kill the man because they do not have ownership over him in any way. However, God, as each persons Creator, seems to have more rights with regards to what the agent’s fate shall be. Consider that parents are commonly thought to have much more control over their children then other people- how much more so would the ultimate Creator have a right over His creation!
Swinburne argues a third point:
“The first and most important difference (between God inflicting harm on us and other human agents doing the same) is that the doctors could have asked the patients for permission; and the patients being free agents of some power and knowledge could have made an informed choice of whether or not to allow themselves to be used. God’s choice is not about how to use already existing agents, but about the sort of agents to make and the sort of world into which to put them. In God’s situation there are not agents to be asked.” 19
Due to these three plausible reasons (and I feel that there are several other possible reasons 20), it seems that God is morally justified in permitting or inflicting suffering upon men for the greater good of others.
The Quantity and Distribution of Evil
A final issue must be considered here. In this theodicy I have advanced numerous explanations for the evil in the world, but do such arguments really account for the brutal facts of reality? Suffering can be so intense and of such duration that it hardly seems justifiable by any account. Furthermore, suffering often happens most acutely to people that seem to be good- moreover, intense suffering oftentimes afflicts the most helpless of society. Can there really be an answer for the actual horrors that do occur? Can the Problem of Evil really be answered?
I am prepared to answer this question with a tentative “yes.” In my view, there are so many ways in which an apparent evil could actually lead to a greater good of some sort, that I believe it is plausible to claim that the world may contain no gratuitous evil. Certainly it is impossible to prove that such is the case, but nonetheless it seems that I can justifiably believe that none of the evil in the world is gratuitous.
One more thing should here be mentioned- although we often think of this world as a place of misery and pain, it is also a world of happiness and pleasure. One must not underestimate the pleasures of companionship and love, or even the lesser goods of food, drink, and conversation. Yes, this world contains much evil- but it also contains much good, and that is why I am comfortable believing that it is the product of a loving God. 21
Having considered multiple reasons for the existence of evil and suffering in this world, I now come to the conclusion that there is no gratuitous evil in the world, and thus premise (2) of the Problem of Evil is false. However, I must admit that I still find it difficult to truly believe that some of the more horrendous evils are truly justified. That is why I think that the Problem of Evil does make atheism slightly more likely. In other words, the Problem of Evil, as an argument, is marginally successful.
This may seem like a rather mild conclusion to reach given the lengths I have traveled in this essay to show that there are sufficient reasons for the evil that this world endures. I certainly would not fault someone for taking the much stronger stance that the Problem of Evil is completely discredited.
The existence of God, I think, is made very probable due to other arguments, such as those offered HERE. Even though the existence of evil in the world makes the theistic hypothesis less likely, it is still the more plausible worldview on the whole. Even if the Problem of Evil is granted some success, as I have given it here, then it still fails to justify its larger hypothesis, that God does not exist.
Appendix 1: The Nature of Free Will
Although, in my experience, virtually everyone believes in free will, its actual existence is not a given amongst academics. Many persons would argue that determinism is true, which implies that for every event that occurs, there are conditions such that, given them, nothing different could have occurred. If determinism is true, it seems that human agents don’t actually have free will, for any decision we humans make are part of the overall chain of necessary occurrences.
However, here we must make a distinction between compatibilist free will and libertarian free will. For compatibilists, determinism does not imply that humans have no free will. Compatibilist freedom requires that an agent be able to choose to do something free from external restraint. Thus, a person who is being held down is not free with respect to their deciding to leave the room- there is an external restraint that is limiting the options the agent can theoretically choose. Thus, freedom here is the hypothetical ability to act or to choose between alternatives (this is sometimes referred to as the “ability condition”).
Libertarian freedom, however, requires a denial of the truth of determinism. According to the libertarian paradigm, more than a hypothetical ability to act is required for true freedom. A categorical ability to act is required, which implies that if an agent freely does A, he could have chosen to refrain from doing A, or could have done B, without any conditions whatsoever being different.
This distinction being made, it seems evident to me that my use of the free will defense depends heavily upon the actual existence of libertarian free will. Although it may be possible to defend my thesis with reference to compatibilist free will, two problems seem to emerge:
1. Compatibilist free will does not seem valuable enough to merit the suffering that the world endures.
2. It seems that God would easily be able to create a perfect or near-perfect world if compatibilism were true, for he would simply have to ensure that certain conditions obtained, and the predictable “free will” choices of agents would follow inescapably.
Can any arguments in favor of libertarian free will be produced? In this brief treatment, I will offer 2, one intuitionist, and one pragmatic.
As I stated earlier, almost all persons seem to believe that they have free will. Moreover, I would argue, it seems that most people intuitively think that they have libertarian free will. For when someone assumes that they have free will to, for example, leave the room they are currently in, they don’t mean
A: “I have no external restraints forcing me to stay in this room.”
Rather, it seems that most people mean quite literally:
A*: “I can choose to leave this room right now or I can choose not to.”
Most people intuitively recognize that they have a genuine categorical ability to make free will choices. But if most people intuitively recognize such a truth, what reason is there to deny it? This is particularly true if there are no actual reasons to abandon such a view of freedom.
The second argument for libertarian free will is pragmatic. I contend that it is nearly unlivable to suppose that humans lack a categorical ability to choose. Compatibilism, although purportedly supporting free will, seems to crush the only type of free will that could possibly give significance to human life. After all, if determinism is true, as compatibilism assumes, then it is hard to view our own lives as anything other than a “theatre of sensations.” We are but one domino in a long chain of dominoes.
If determinism is true, then how can one sensibly be proud of the person they have become? They are only the person they are because of a complicated mix of factors leading up to their birth. I believe that such a view is completely demoralizing.
Now, I will admit that, although I think they may have quite a bit of appeal, the two arguments I have provided for libertarian free will are weak. Thus, if compatibilists/determinists could mount a good argument, then it would be the intellectually preferred position. However, I simply don’t think that compatibilists/determinists can formulate any strong arguments.
Against libertarianism, compatibilists argue that some of our actions do seem determined, and their alternative acts utterly unthinkable, given our character. For example, it is simply unthinkable that I would choose to torture and kill my brother, even if I had some sort of quasi-justification for the act (i.e., he stole my wallet). Given my character, desires, and beliefs, it is simply out of the question for me to commit such a heinous act. But this only goes to show that my action in this case is determined.
To this I would offer two responses. Firstly, it is not crucial that every scenario, or even most scenarios, should entail libertarian free choice. It may be the case that some acts are precluded by our desires, beliefs, and character, but such a truth does not negate the possibility of at least some genuine cases of libertarian free will. Secondly, and even more importantly, my categorical inability to perform a certain action at a certain time need not be construed as a failure of libertarian free will. It only makes sense that certain acts would be out of the question, or else our actions would be completely foolish and random. (For example, it makes absolutely no sense for me to get in my car, drive to Chicago, and kill a random person in the street. I have no motive or reason whatsoever to do such a thing, and strong motivations and reasons against it, so of course I am not going to do it.)
However, at this juncture we may distinguish between first-order freedoms and second-order freedoms. I may not, at this point in my life, have the categorical ability to murder my brother. But this may be a consequence of previous choices I have made that have developed my character in a certain way. Thus, even though I am psychologically unable to kill my brother at this point in my life, my decision to refrain from killing my brother may be at least a partially free decision.
Another argument against libertarian free will is that it is an unnecessary hypothesis. It is simpler to assume that our actions are determined by the events that preceded them, as is the case for the lower animals.
However, I don’t think it is necessarily a given that no other animals have free will. In fact, it seems reasonable to suppose that at least some of the higher animals have some sort of control over their actions. But even if it is true that animals have no free will, I don’t think that makes the inference to a lack of humanly free will convincing. There are several dissimilarities, the most important of which is the fact that we can recognize our own consciousness. Whether or not other animals have a similar ability is not truly known, but it is an undeniable fact that humans have some sort of self-concept.
Appendix 2: Creaturely Essences
Many thinkers have pointed out that God, while perhaps not willing to interfere with the free will affairs of His creatures, nevertheless could simply have created them with a tendency to choose good moral actions. Why did God create us with such a tendency towards evil? I will here offer a few reasons that God may have been motivated to create us the way he did.
Firstly, since we have a somewhat strong tendency to act in selfish or morally irresponsible ways, it is more significant when we act in a morally proper way. As I argue in C, higher-order goods are very valuable, but they are in large part valuable because humans often have a difficult time motivating themselves to take part in them. Thus, the value of our decision to act in a morally responsible manner is enhanced due to our tendency to be selfish and/or evil.
Secondly, the sorry state of our own moral being is, I think, often a factor that motivates us to recognize our own moral failure and our accountability to God. Without this sense of accountability, it is possible that not many people would believe in and rely on God. However, since belief in and love of God is more valuable than temporary happiness, God may have motivation to create us with a tendency towards selfishness and evil so that we are more able to recognize our need of God. If we were mostly morally good, but still committed a few sins that ensured our lack of compatibility with God, it is possible that fewer men would come to believe in and love God, leading to eternal salvation.
Thirdly, assuming God wishes to develop a relationship with His human creatures, He may not wish to create them with such a tendency towards loving Him. After all, the point of the free will argument is that God does not want to force His creatures to love Him. But if He created His creatures with an overwhelming natural tendency to act morally responsible and love Him, then He would still encounter the same problem. The relationship was not hard-earned, it was on the verge of being coerced. It is completely reasonable to assume that God simply wishes for a relationship that is earned and therefore more rewarding. 22
These considerations are simply a few somewhat plausible reasons God may have for creating us the way He did. I would like to point out, however, that while I do think it is true that humans have quite a tendency to be selfish and unloving, they still have quite an ability to be altruistic and caring. Many humans are very moral, and I believe that all people have a capacity to act in a morally correct way most of the time. In any case, I am not entirely sure that God has created us with such a capacity for evil because He wanted to. I think it can be argued that our creaturely essences are as they are because of the situation that we are in, and not necessarily because of direct divine Will. This means that God could simply create us with a blank slate, but because of the situation we find ourselves in, all humans inevitably end up having a strong tendency towards selfishness and evil.
First, humans live in a world of limited resources. If all humans shared the resources of the world equally, there would be a sufficient amount for all to enjoy a relatively high standard of living. However, the fact that there are limited resources results in the possibility of some individuals securing more than their fair share. It is very easy for a person to follow their desires and try to maximize their own state of affairs without regard for others.
Second, all humans have strong desires, many of which are good, biologically useful, or both. These desires include food, drink, and sex. These desires can naturally be misused when humans pursue them without regard for others.
1. Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.
2. According to Christian theology, God has made sacrifices for the better of the human race. The primary example is the sacrifice Jesus Christ made on the cross. However, it is ludicrous for us to expect or require God to make such sacrifices.
3. Some writers imply that free will is not necessarily of such great value. But quite honestly, I think that almost every rational person would confirm that free will is of immense value. Most humans do not wish to be mere “theaters of sensations”, in which they are simply the inevitable result of what has happened in the past and which sensations they happen to experience. While it is true that consensus does not make free will “actually” valuable, the mere fact that almost every person seems to subjectively value it makes it valuable in the sense that persons want to have it. Thus, I am generally unimpressed by attempts to cast doubt on the value of free will.
4. In my view, this is the case for several reasons. Firstly, knowledge of God leads to increased happiness in itself, of a degree and type that cannot be achieved by mere pleasurable sensations the natural world can offer. Secondly, God deserves our recognition as Creator and Sustainer of life, and thus belief in Him (as well as love and respect) is a good thing. Finally, according to traditional Christian beliefs, faith in God is the only way to achieve eternal salvation, which is infinitely more valuable than temporary pleasure while on earth.
5. Moreland, J.P. and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), p. 545.
6. A confirmation of the plausibility of this suggestion can be found in many atheistic presentations of the Problem of Evil. It is often claimed that the evil in this world is not fairly distributed, and, even further, that the wicked tend to be more prosperous than the moral. However, it obviously makes little sense to suppose that evil literally seeks out “moral” persons and leaves the unscrupulous relatively unscathed. If this were the case, it would be evidence for a deliberately malevolent Creator. In actuality, it makes much more sense to suppose that wealth and comfort are actually causes of the wickedness of those persons. Ironically, then, this argument actually supports the contention that an easy life can be a cause of moral corruption. This implies that God would have motivation to permit hardship and suffering.
7. Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), p. 214.
8. Theoretically, the actions God would have to take in order to eliminate evil from the world could cause an agent to develop a hazardous belief, such as that God does not exist. According to my arguments in B, and most Christian theology, such a belief is much more disastrous than even the most horrendous evils in this world. Thus, even if it were somehow possible for God to eliminate cause and effect evil from the world, such actions could result in destructive beliefs on the part of the agent.
9. One possibility comes to mind- God could simply give out varying levels of rewards based on a person’s moral goodness. Under such a scenario, all men would experience only pleasurable sensations, but some would experience less intense pleasure due to their wrongdoing. Thus, morally good actions would be “rewarded” by more pleasure and morally bad actions would be “punished” by less pleasure. However, I see two problems with this view. Firstly, it is questionable to suppose that such a system of punishment would be as effective for rehabilitative purposes. Suffering might be a much more effective means of influencing a person to stop behaving in a morally bad manner. Secondly, it is not clear that such a system would give true justice. Do murderers, rapists, and the like merely deserve “less intense pleasure?” I think that such crimes deserve a more acute form of punishment.
10. Plantinga, Alvin. The Nature of Necessity. (Oxford: 1974).
11. Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. p. 202.
12. Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. p. 215.
13. This, however, is quite presumptuous. There are so many potential factors that it would seem too difficult for us to even begin to assess these probabilities.
14. Boyd, Gregory. Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views. (Downer’s Grove, InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 14.
15. We must be careful here, however, because some evils that appear to be natural might actually be at least partially moral. For example, birth defects may seem like a natural evil. However, certain choices the mother makes- whether or not to take drugs, what type of foods to eat- can potentially determine whether or not the child will be born with defects.
16. In fact, specific evils need not be explained with reference to only one factor. Consider a certain evil, say, the early death of a child due to a birth defect. Perhaps 20% of the reason for God permitting the evil is that the mother needed some sort of intense punishment in order to get her life back on track. And 40% of the reason may be that the child would eventually, whether intentionally or not, stray other people away from God. Another 10% may be that the mother had taken drugs while pregnant, and God wanted to uphold the consequences of such actions. Finally, 30% of the reason God allows the evil may be that such evil will in some way cause another individual to gain belief in God. Thus, it can be seen that God may have multiple reasons for permitting even a single evil. While one reason may not be sufficient, the cumulative effect ensures that the evil will lead to an overall greater good.
17. Indeed, I find this objection to be rather unfair. If the atheist wishes me to provide an account for the evil in the world, then I will certainly attempt to justify my views. But if he then turns around and claims “Well, according to you, we should promote suffering and evil,” then I must admit that I find him to be slightly dishonest. What does he really expect me to do when trying to philosophically explain the compatibility of a loving God and evil, rather than to refer to the possibility of it being for some other sort of greater good? It seems to me that he is attempting to have me answer an impossible challenge in such a case.
18. Mackie, John. The Miracle of Theism. (Oxford: 1982), p. 164.
19. Swinburne, Richard. The Existence of God. p. 216.
20. For example, it is possible that God knows what certain individuals would permit if they knew that it was for the greater good of others. For example, God may know that Jim would, if he knew the overall consequences, accept a certain evil to endure. Thus, God may have sufficient justification for permitting such evil. However, God does not need such justification- the three reasons I have provided already excuse Him from any charge of injustice, in my view.
21. In fact, one may be able to argue that there is the possibility for an Argument from Good. The Problem of Evil claims that there is much more suffering and hardship in this world then one would expect given an omnibenevolent Creator. However, perhaps it could be countered that there is much more good and joy in the world then one would suspect given a naturalistic universe. Some goods are so supremely satisfying and fulfilling that they can hardly be seen to be useful for strictly biological purposes. For example, the extreme joy of love, companionship, and friendship with other humans has been experienced, I submit, by almost all human agents. But the overwhelming happiness we may achieve due to these interactions hardly seems necessary for our biological survival. True, some sort of happiness and contentment with friendship and companionship may be useful in fostering a productive community, but I believe that the amount of joy we can experience due to these relationships is much in excess of what is necessary to uphold community.
Even the simple pleasures of food, drink, etc. sometimes seem to be in excess of what should be required in order to function successfully (i.e., in order to convince us that indeed we should eat or drink when we are hungry or thirsty.) However, a much more convincing form of “gratuitous happiness” may be found in the pleasure human agents experience when reflecting upon God. Many people report that they feel a deep inner sense of satisfaction due to their belief and, oftentimes, experiential knowledge of God. But such joy seems entirely gratuitous on the atheistic hypothesis, yet makes perfect sense on the theistic hypothesis. Thus, this tentative argument may be formed as follows:
1. If the universe were completely naturalistic, then “gratuitous” happiness would most likely not exist.
2. Gratuitous happiness exists.
3. Therefore, the universe is most likely not completely naturalistic.
I do not wish to claim that this argument furnishes as much plausibility as the Problem of Evil, as both the first and second premises could probably be challenged. However, I think that this line of reasoning may at least somewhat offset the Problem of Evil.
22. In fact, this could best be interpreted as a sort of continuum. On the absolute left, God would completely coerce his creatures to love Him and act morally good. On the absolute right, God would coerce His creatures to irrevocably despise Him and always act morally bad. It is quite reasonable that God would pick a “value” somewhere near the middle. Too far left, and the love is not hard-earned, too far right, and the love is too difficult and rarely achieved.
For More on the Problem of Evil
For a collection of articles, book reviews, and other material concering the Problem of Evil, see this Series.