The Problem of Evil and Replies: Van Inwagen

“If there are any marks at all of special design in creation, one of the things

most evidently designed is that a large proportion of all animals should

pass their existence in tormenting and devouring other animals. They

have been lavishly fitted out with the instruments necessary for that

purpose; their strongest instincts impel them to it, and many of them seem

to have been constructed incapable of supporting themselves by any other

food. If a tenth part of the pains which have been expended in finding

benevolent adaptions in all nature, had been employed in collecting

evidence to blacken the character of the Creator, what scope for comment

would not have been found in the entire existence of the lower animals,

divided, with scarcely an exception, into devourers and devoured, and a

prey to a thousand ills from which they are denied the faculties necessary

for protecting themselves! If we are not obliged to believe the animal

creation to be the work of a demon, it is because we need not suppose it to

have been made by a Being of infinite power.”

John Stuart Mill, Three Essays on Religion (London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and
Dyer, 1875), pp. 58-59

Introduction and Context
Up until now we’ve looked at arguments for the existence of God (gods?) including the Cosmological Argument and the Argument from Design (Aka Teleological Argument).   If the argument from design is the most intuitively compelling argument for the existence God(s), then the problem of evil is the most intuitively compelling argument against the existence of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic conception of God.

Lets take a look at the argument from evil in its most basic form:
(P1)  There’s some seriously evil sh*t that happens in our world.
(P2)  If there is a God who is omniscient, omnipotent, and morally perfect he would not allow such evil to occur.
(C)  But since (P1), it follows (by modus tollens) that there is no God (or at least not one who is omnipotent and morally perfect).

Now lets explain how this argument works.  Think of an evil act.  If you’re having trouble, pick up the nearest newspaper.  Now, suppose there is a God that is omnipotent and morally perfect.  Why does the God let this evil act happen?  Here are four possible replies:

Option 1:  He doesn’t know.  Ok, but this response is implausible for major evil acts.  Surely, if we can learn about major evil events that occur around the world or in our communities, God can too.  And finally, God is also supposed to be all knowing, so this blocks off this reply.

Option 2:  He knows but was unable to stop it.  This would contradict the attribute of omnipotence. Omnipotence means God can do anything that doesn’t entail a logical contradiction.  So, this reply isn’t going to work.

Option 3:  He knows but was unwilling to stop it.  This seems to contract moral perfection.  If you had the power to stop a crime without any harm to yourself, but didn’t, we’d say your actions were morally lacking–at the very least.

Option 4:  He knows about the evil but is unwilling to stop it because of some reason.  Maybe there is a good reason for which God allows evil to exist.  This is the option most replies to the problem of evil take.

Two Sub-Strategies to Replying to the Problem of Evil
Since option 4 is the only plausible choice which avoids overt contradiction, Van Inwagen begins his argument here.  God allows evil because he has some good reason(s) for allowing it to exist.  How are we going to explain these reasons?

Option A
Now here comes the tricky part…who needs the Quickee Mart?  The tricky part is going to be coming up with those reasons.  I mean, what mere mortal would have the audacity to claim to know the reasons of an omnipotent, infinite, morally perfect being.  And even if he does have the audacity, how could we possibly verify his claim?  History and modern times give us no shortage of people claiming to know the will of God.  On what grounds should we believe one over the other?  

One common reply is that we can look to the bible.  

There are going to be quite a few problems with this.  First of all, which bible?  The torah? the new testament? the koran?  And each of those has their own version.  On what grounds do we choose between them.

Suppose we know which book, but there is some seriously objectionable stuff in those book, not to mention overt contradictions.  (1) God overtly sanctions genocide, yet forbids us to kill.  (2)  In what is suppose to be the moral guide for mankind, you’d think there’d a condemnation of slavery.  Nope.  Only instructions for how to be a good slave owner or a good slave. (3)  If a woman is raped she is to be either stoned to death or married for 50 pieces of silver to her rapist.  

Yes, there are some bad things in the bible, so we just shouldn’t do those things.

By what standard are you picking and choosing what we should or should not follow?  If it is what aligns with our modern moral code, then what do we need the bible for? 

Option B
We can avoid the tricky part and abstain from making the claim that we can know God’s reasons.  But this creates a problem: if we don’t know God’s reasons, with what reasons are we going to justify option 4?  That is, if we accept that God has reasons for evil in the world, it’s not very satisfying to just throw our hands up (in the air and wave them like we just don’t care) and say…”He’s got reeeeeally good reasons–trust me! but we can’t know those reasons.”  This is an argument from faith which does not satisfactorily address the concerns raised in the problem of evil.  The response might work for some people who already believe in God, but it’s not going to work with everyone. 

Further Criteria for an Adequate Response
Whichever of these two options are chosen, it is not sufficient to say that evil exists because God is able to bring about some good from the evils.  Recall that God is omnipotent.  If this is true then maybe he could have brought about the good without having the evil.  And allowing the evil when it wasn’t necessary would conflict with the notion of God’s moral perfection.  For this reason, any logically sufficient defense must show that there was no other logically possible way for God to bring about the greater good that was a consequence of the evil.  

Enter the freewill defense…

The Freewill Defense Version 1.0
Here’s the freewill defense in its basic form:

God made the world and it was very good.  An indispensable part of the goodness he chose was the existence of rational beings:  self-aware beings capable of abstract thought and love and having the power of free choice between contemplated alternative courses of action.  This last feature of rational beings, free choice or freewill, is a good.  But even an omnipotent being is unable to control the exercise of free choice, for a choice that was controlled would ipso facto not be free.  In other words, if I have a free choice between x and y, even God cannot ensure that I choose x.  To ask God to give me a free choice between x and y and to see to it that I choose x instead of y is to ask God to bring about the intrinsically impossible; it is like asking him to create a round square, a material body that has no shape, or an invisible object that casts shadows.  Having this power of free choice, some or all humans misuse it and produce a certain amount of evil.  But freewill is a sufficiently great good that its existence outweighs the evils that result from its abuses.

In short, the argument goes something like this:  
(P1)  In order to make the “goodest” possible world, God included in it freewill.  That is, a world without freewill wouldn’t be as good as a world without it.
(P2)  Freewill implies that God cannot directly influence what choices we make–that would entail a logical contradiction.  Freewill can only be freewill if it can’t be messed with.
(P3)  Some people misuse their freewill and make decisions that cause evil or are evil.  And God can’t do a (gosh-darn?) thing about it (i.e., because of (P2)).
(P4)  Even though (P3), the world is still a better place than it would be without freewill (i.e., (P1)).
(C)   Therefore, there is no contraction between evil in the world and God’s omnipotence and moral perfection.

Objection 1:  Math
The math of good vs evil in the world we live in doesn’t add up.  In our world, the quantity of evil that is a result of freewill is greater than the quantity of good that results from having freewill.  There’d be more good in the world if God just directed us make the right decisions instead of leaving it up to us.

Reply: Objection Assumes Consequentialism w/o argument.  
The objection assumes that what is good is the measure of what is right without providing a supporting argument.  But what is good and what is morally right are two different things.  By having freewill there are more morally right things about the world than morally wrong things. 

Counter Reply:  Ok, fine.  Net goodness and moral rightness are not the same, but the moral math still doesn’t work out:  The total amount actions/events that have more wrong-making properties are greater than the total of events/actions that have right-making properties.

At this point the traditional freewill defender has to contract the fact that there’s more moral evil than moral good in the world, which might be difficult to defend, especially when you take into account the objection 2.

Objection 2:  Natural Evil
Not all evil is the result of human decisions.  In fact, it could be argued, that a large portion of human suffering is a consequence of natural disasters (Recent tsunamis in Japan and Thailand, Volcanos, Droughts, Hurricane Katrina and others, etc..)  Also, natural disasters seem to strike and adversely affect those that are the worst off.  And it’s not only humans that are affected by natural disasters.  It’s thousands of animals all capable of suffering.  The given the total amount of needless suffering in the world, the traditional defense starts to look implausible.

Reply 1
The majority of human suffering caused by natural disasters is a consequence of poor exercise of freewill.  Most areas that are prone to natural disasters have been so for centuries.  Maybe God’s like, “guys! how many freakin’ hurricanes do I have to send through Oklahoma until you understand you shouldn’t live there?  And all you fools in California.  Seriously?  You’re going to voluntarily live on a major fault line?  How many more earthquakes do I have to make until you figure out not to live there?”

Counter-reply 1a:  Why doesn’t God want us to live in Oklahoma?  That just seems kind of petty.  He knows we live there, why keep sending hurricanes and causing death and suffering?  How important could it be that we not live in Oklahoma?

Counter-reply 1b: There is a strong positive correlation between poverty and religiosity.  Also, globally, the poor tend to occupy areas most prone to natural disasters.  How does it make sense that the people that tend to be the most religious are being most affected by natural disasters.  Not only that, but it is the poor who suffer the most in natural disasters.

Counter-reply 1c:  Even if we grant that suffering caused by natural disasters is a consequence of not intelligently using freewill, this still doesn’t explain non-human suffering caused by natural disasters.

Reply 2:  God doesn’t cause natural disasters.

Counter-reply 2a:  Ok, but he couldn’t stop them if he’s omnipotent?

Counter-reply 2b:  Isaiah 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things.

Van Inwagen’s Response to the Problem of Evil
Van Inwagen concedes that Freewill Defense Version 1.0 cannot address these objections when we weigh the total amount of evil in the world (man-made + natural disasters) vs the total amount of good. So, how best to respond? 

Van Inwagen formulates the following response:
(P1)  The tale of Genesis is loosely an historical tale.  God guided the course of evolution to create a special group of humans with rationality, abstract thought, and disinterested love. Also freewill.
(P2)*  God gave us freewill because it is the only way to have disinterested love.
(P3)  The first humans lived in some sort of union with God–a harmony of perfect love.  Because of this, we had something like paranormal powers which allowed us to avoid natural disaster, disease, and pretty much anything bad.
(P4)  Somehow this wasn’t good enough for our ancestors and some dumbasses went and f*cked sh*t up.  The world became a place of horrors:  Our poor exercise of freewill led to our susceptibility to natural disasters, gruesome wars, random violence, torture, rape, and so on… 
(P5)  God “set in motion a rescue operation” to restore humanity to union with himself.  This rescue operation was to allow so much evil in the world that eventually people will realize what it means to be separated from God.  The only way for humanity to understand how bad it is without being in union with God is to make the world a really really evil place.
(P6)  From (P5) it follows that if God prevented evil, this would interfere with the ability of humanity to realize how much they need to be united in love with God.  And humanity would forever be condemned to a world of evil.  But God doesn’t let all evil happen.  In fact he shields us (especially middle class white Americans) from evil.  If he did not “every human society would be on a moral level of Nazi Germany.”
(C)   The only way to be unified with God is through disinterested love which requires freewill.  Therefore, God’s moral perfection and omnipotence do not conflict with the existence of evil in the world because if there weren’t the amount of evil there is in the world, humanity would never be forced recognize how horrible it is to be apart from God.

Needless to say, this response is going to be tough for an agnostic or atheist to accept.  However, supposing there is a God here are a few possible objections. 

Objection 1: Part of Van Iwagen’s response is to say that living apart from God entails “being the playthings of chance.”  That is, in our current state of affairs evil things happen to people who don’t deserve it.  But it seems that this uncoupling of moral merit and reward and punishment runs counter to the idea that God is just.

Reply:  Van Iwagen’s reply here will probably be that living in a world with no justice is a consequence of our separation with God:  it’s one more evil thing about our world.  

Counter-reply:  Ok, but how is this fair to the devote person who is intent on unifying him/herself with God.  Why should they be randomly punished for the poor behavior of others.  Isn’t this a tremendous disincentive to being good?

Objection 2: Doesn’t God know how much evil is necessary to bring about reconciliation? By getting the levels wrong, there seems to be a lot of unnecessary suffering going on. Consider all the people that lived and died without reconciliation. Is this because they didn’t experience enough evil in their lives? Because if it is the evil that brings about this realization, then God got the level wrong for that generation.

Objection 3 (same counter-reply 1b): Why is it the religious poor who suffer the most? These people are typically the most religious. Also, the regions in the US and in the world where there are the most natural disasters is where the more religious people live.

Objection 4: Is this really the only way? Why doesn’t God appear before everyone and say “hey guys, I’m here and you’re wrong about no god and you’re wrong about what god is…now here’s what I want you to do…”  And anytime you turn away from God, He brings a dead puppy to you and says “now look what you’ve done!”

One last note:  
It’s important to point out that if we accept the problem of evil argument, it doesn’t follow that there is no God period. What follows is that there is no God as traditionally conceived by the Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions…Maybe the Greeks had it right after all: the gods aren’t perfect either!

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