Solved: The Logical Problem of Evil 

A very quick "grab bag" item last week about the problem(s) of evil generated more discussion than I had expected. As was said in the Stand to Reason post I linked to then, there is widespread agreement now that the "logical problem of evil" has been resolved. Apparently some of our commenters are not convinced. (Much of the discussion seems also to have been touched off by a second, related link from that grab bag.) The explanations we started with were very brief, so I'm going to try to clarify here now. 

The post I linked to then was by Brett Kunkle, who said,
The logical challenge can and has been answered decisively, starting with Alvin Plantinga in his famous book, God, Freedom, and Evil. 

This is no small claim to make. The question goes back at least as far as Epicurus, and was famously re-stated by David Hume, and recently by J. L. Mackie. It suggested that the existence of a good, powerful God is deductively disproved by the following argument:

1. A perfectly powerful God could create any world he desires.
2. A perfectly good God would want to create a world without evil.
3. Evil exists in our world.
4. Therefore:
     a. There is no God, or
     b. He is not fully powerful, or
     c. He is not perfectly good.

Kunkle stated a different form of the same argument, following Mackie:
1. God exists and is omnipotent and perfectly good. 
2. A perfectly good being always eliminates evil as far as it can. 
3. There are no limits to what an omnipotent being can do. 
4. Evil exists. 
5. Therefore, God does not exist. 

The claim is that this challenge has been settled. It is not just theistic philosophers who recognize this, but also many agnostic and atheistic thinkers. How could this be, after all these centuries of debate?

As I understand it, there were two key insights from Plantinga that broke open the logjam. First, he saw that the problem is best approached at two separate levels: the logical problem of evil, and the probabilistic problem of evil. Here's the difference between the two: the logical problem, as it has been stated twice here, is an attempt to prove deductively that there is no God (or at least no God of a kind most theists would speak of). Deductive proofs rely for their force on tight logic, and where they succeed, they are final. There is no "wiggle room" around a deductive conclusion. A probabilistic argument, on the other hand, is one that looks to the given evidence and considers the probabilities of a conclusion. Its outcomes cannot be certain in the same sense as a deductive argument's may be.

Second, Plantinga observed that the burden of proof for this argument rests on the one who brings it against the theist. This is not a theistic argument in favor of the existence of God, it is an atheistic argument against his existence. The one making the argument carries the burden of demonstration. If it can be shown that it does not meet that burden, then the argument fails. The theist need not mount a theodicy (an explanation for evil in the world) to stand against this argument; he need only offer a defense.

Plantinga offered the free will defense. Here's a condensed version of it. According to Moreland and Craig, in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (page 539-540),

[Plantinga] argues that if it is even possible that creatures have libertarian freedom (even if in fact they do not), then the two assumptions made by the objector are not necessarily true, which they must be if the atheist is to show that there is no possibility of the coexistence of God and evil. In the first place, if libertarian free will is possible, it is not necessarily true that an omnipotent God can create just any possible world that he desires. . . . God's being omnipotent does not imply that he can do logical impossibilities, such as make a round square or make someone freely choose to do something. . . . Thus it is possible that every world feasible for God which contains free creatures is a world with sin and evil.

. . .

But what about the second assumption, that if God is omnibenevolent, then he prefers a world without evil over a world with evil? Again, such an assumption is not necessarily true. The fact is that in many cases we allow pain and suffering to occur in a person's life in order to bring about some greater good or because we have some sufficient reason for allowing it. . . . There comes a point at which a parent can no longer protect a child from every mishap; and there are other times when discipline must be inflicted on the child in order to teach him to become a mature, responsible adult. Similarly, God may permit suffering in our lives in order to build us or to test us, or to build and test others, or to achieve some other overriding end. . . . The argument is thus doubly invalid.

But what of the view that the amount of evil in the world is just not credibly consistent with this? Moreland and Craig point out:

The crucial assumption behind this reasoning is the notion that God cannot have morally sufficient reasons for permitting the amount and kinds of evil that exist. But it is again not clear that this assumption is necessarily true. Consider first the amount of evil in the world. As terrible a place as the world is, there is still on balance a great deal more good in the world than evil. . . . people generally agree that life is worth living . . . people characteristically look to the future in the hope that things will get better. . . . Any world containing less evil might also have contained less good. Maybe the actual world has in it the most good God could get for the least amount of evil.

Recall that the burden of proof is on the objector. One might say, "But this is all mere supposition! How do we know that this world has the most good for the least evil?!" We do not, in fact, have to know that in order to defeat this argument. Just the possibility that it is so is enough to defeat the logical version of the problem of evil. That argument states that it is impossible for God to coexist with evil, and we have here a demonstration that it is not impossible. The argument does not stand, and the philosophical world has recognized the fact.

One might also say, "But this is all so very unbelievable. It may not be logically impossible that God can coexist with evil, but I do not think it's the least bit likely." At that point one is using probabilistic language, and that takes us from the logical problem of evil to the probabilistic problem. This post is long enough, though. I'll come back to that topic in a day or two.

First in a series:
1. Solved: The Logical Problem of Evil
2. What is "The Problem of Evil?"
3. Is God Likely, In View of Evil?
4. Can Evil Be Made Good?
5. Fences Around Evil
6. Reflections on the Mess We Live In  

Posted: Tue - May 23, 2006 at 05:30 AM           |

© 2004-2007 by Tom Gilson. Permission is granted to quote up to two paragraphs of any blog entry, provided that a link back to the original is included or (in print) the website address is provided. Please email me regarding longer quotes. All other rights reserved.

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