The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 20: Ethics

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 21: The problem of evil
Last modified on Sun Jul 31 16:32:46 2022


This is the twenty first post in a series on Victor Stenger's book God: The failed hypothesis. In this chapter I will discuss his eighth chapter, The argument from evil, but also go expand on the subject a little. Of course, a lot more can be said on the topic than I shall write here.

The arguments from evil or suffering (there are more than one) are unquestionably important. I think if you ask atheists today why they reject all theistic religion, then a clear majority of them would include some version of the argument from evil. It might not be the first on their list, and they will mention other things as well, but I think that it will be there (albeit that this is based on my anecdotal experience and not any hard data). So the argument is important. It is, however, still strongly debated in the scholarly community. It is not agreed to be a knock-out blow against theism.

My discussion here is just going to be limited to the intellectual case. There is also an emotional case. If somebody suffers a great personal evil, then that can be a blow to their faith. The emotional case is not something I can dwell on. Partly, because each case depends on individual circumstance, while a post like this must by its nature discuss generalities. But mainly because I am rubbish at pastoral care, and everything I say usually but unintentionally makes the person I am talking to hurt even more. But I will say this: we are not special. If we accept the arguments defending God from the intellectual problem of evil in the abstract, then those arguments also apply when the suffering strikes close to home. We know that such things happen, and so it is irrational to treat them happening to us any differently from them happening to someone in a distant country. If that did not sway our faith, then neither should our personal suffering. Of course, that's much easier for me to say sitting here in my comfortable office chair than it is for someone in the middle of the pain. (Now you know why I say that I am rubbish at pastoral care.)

There are two main versions of the argument from evil. The first is known as the logical problem of evil; the second as the evidential problem of evil.

The logical argument runs roughly as follows.

  1. Assume that there is a God with the following properties:
    1. One;
    2. Omniscient;
    3. Omnipotent;
    4. Perfectly benevolent.
  2. If there is such a God, then evil could only exist if God were unwilling to prevent it, unable to prevent it, or not aware of it.
  3. A God who is perfectly benevolent would not be unwilling to prevent evil.
  4. A God who is omnipotent and one (i.e. did not have an equally powerful rival with competing goals) would not be unable to prevent evil.
  5. A God who is omniscient would not be unaware of evil.
  6. Therefore, if such a God existed there would be no evil in the world.
  7. There is evil in the world.
  8. Therefore such a God does not exist.

Note the importance of all four of these attributes to the argument. The argument is not an argument for atheism or agnosticism. It is perfectly consistent with the conclusion to believe in some sort of god or gods which (between them) violate at least one of the four attributes. Obviously, this is not much of a consolation to Christians (and, I think, most Jews) who do accept those four attributes. I am not sure that an orthodox Muslim would necessarily accept perfect benevolence. The Qu'ran mentions many attributes and names of God, but I am not aware that a universal agape love is among them, as it is in the New Testament especially, and also (a little less directly) the Old Testament. But I am not an expert in Islam, and would welcome correction if I am mistaken.

The evidential argument from evil is similar, but with some qualifications. It concedes (perhaps for the sake of argument) that there are successful defences to the logical argument from evil, but states that these exceptions do not allow for the sort of evil that we observe in the world.

  1. Assume that there is a God with the following properties:
    1. One;
    2. Omniscient;
    3. Omnipotent;
    4. Perfectly benevolent.
  2. If there is such a God, then evil could only exist if God were unwilling to prevent it, unable to prevent it, or not aware of it.
  3. A God who is perfectly benevolent would not be unwilling to prevent certain types of evil.
  4. A God who is omnipotent and one (i.e. did not have an equally powerful rival with different goals) would not be unable to prevent certain types of evil.
  5. A God who is omniscient would not be unaware of evil.
  6. Therefore, if such a God existed there would be no evil in the world of the sort that is forbidden in premises 3 and 4.
  7. It is improbable that the types of evil we observe in the in the world are of the sort allowed by premises 3 and 4 together.
  8. Therefore it is improbable that a God as in premise 1 exists.

As may be inferred from this rephrasing of the argument, it is premises 3 and 4 which are most commonly attacked by theists, and that will be my approach as well.

There is a partner argument, the argument from suffering, which replaces evil with suffering. I will merge my discussion of these together. Those who use suffering to argue against theism usually take it for granted that the type of suffering they are considering is a type of evil. I should also note that the argument takes on a different force for a deistic God and a theistic God. In deism, God sits back and watches the universe evolve independently of him. God would have to intervene to prevent evil. God is not directly responsible for the evil, but just sits back and lets it happen. In theism, God is actively sustaining every part of the universe at every moment. In other words, evil would occur because of God's own actions. Thus I think the argument from evil takes on a different form against either deism or theism, and at first glance it seems that the theist has it significantly worse.

The argument from evil has obviously been around for a long time, since at least the ancient Greeks. It was revived by David Hume, and then again in modern times (in its logical form) by Mackie in the 1950s. The evidential form was developed in the 1990s by Philosophers such as Draper and Rowe. Notable people who have developed responses to the argument are Alvin Plantinga and Brian Davies.

Professor Stenger's argument

Since this is officially part of a review of Professor Stenger's book (even though I am using it as an excuse to delve into various important topics which I haven't had much cause as yet to discuss), I ought to begin with an overview of his presentation of the problem.

Professor Stenger's main sources for this chapter seem to be two works by Mackie, both taken from Martin and Monnier's anthology The impossibility of God, and also a university seminar given by Michael Huemer. I have access to Mackie's essay and book chapter, but not the text of Huemer's seminar, so for that I have to rely on Professor Stenger's account of it.

Professor Stenger starts with a presentation of the logical form of the argument; not identical to my own but close enough. He states, seemingly unaware of Plantinga's work and the response to it, that the majority of philosophers consider this argument sound.

First of all, he asks what is meant by evil. He believes it to be a scientific truth that evil exists in the world, and refers to his naturalistic theory of ethics. Torturing innocent people is vile, regardless of whether or not there is a God. He also brings up the Euthyphro dilemma here, which I discussed in the previous post.

I think that this question is hugely important to the discussion, but I am not convinced by Professor Stenger's response. Firstly, as argued in the previous post, Professor Stenger's account of moral standards commits the naturalistic fallacy, and is invalid. The second point is more significant. Premise 3 of the argument above is only true if whatever we define as the moral standard is in alignment with what God regards as the moral standard. We cannot just arbitrarily invent some moral standard, and assume the argument works with it. The perfectly moral God might quite happily do something that some of us regard as evil if He Himself regards it as good. That leaves the two standard theistic understandings of goodness, either divine command or natural law.

The argument from evil is an argument from contradiction. It basically takes a group of premises, attempts to show that there is a contradiction between them. All that is formally shown, assuming that the argument is valid, is that at least one of the premises is incorrect. Obviously the atheist wants to further suggest that the incorrect premise is the one which assumes that a God with the selected properties exists, usually by stating that the argument from 1-5 to point 6 is valid, premises 2-5 and 7 are unquestionable, and point 6 and point 7 are mutually exclusive. But if there is a contradiction elsewhere in the argument, then one cannot draw that conclusion that God does not exist. If one just throws in an arbitrary definition of evil into premise 7, but still purports to undermine the conception of God used in classical theism, then in effect there would be different definitions of evil in premises 3 and 7. That would then be the contradiction in the argument, and God escapes unscathed. To keep the argument valid, the atheist has to use the same definition of good and evil that a theist would use, i.e. define the word "evil" consistently between premises 3 and 7.

Applying the argument from evil to a divine command ethics seems at first glance to be particularly problematic. In divine command ethics, what is right and wrong depends on the will of God. God's actions are in alignment with His will, and thus it would seem to be automatically good. In practice, this statement is too strong; there could still be some cases where some localised evil (i.e. to a particular individual) is required to serve a more universal good. But it is difficult to argue that if divine command ethics is granted, then there would be some gratuitous evil (i.e. something which does not serve a purpose in service of the good). Any apparent evil we observe would have to serve a greater good, and premise 7 of the argument fails. It might be responded that this response to the problem depends on a version of divine command ethics which does fall to the Euthyphro dilemma, and there might be something in that. It requires further discussion.

But I think the best hope for the atheist is to attack from the perspective of natural law ethics. Here one can argue for an objective standard of ethics based on human nature. If one can find a gratuitous violation of the natural law, then that could be used as part of an argument from evil. Ultimately natural law ethics depends on God, but since we are searching for a contradiction between that ethics and what we observe, that only helps the atheist case.

Next Professor Stenger gives a superficial look at responses to the problem of evil. He first of all discusses some rejoinders made by Mackie, which I will discuss below when I discuss Mackie's paper in depth, and then turns to Huemer. Huemer rebuts 8 responses to the problem:

  1. The free will defence. The rejoinder is that not all evil is the result of human free will. One still has to account for the suffering caused by natural disasters.
  2. Suffering is required for human to develop moral virtues. The rejoinder is that this could be accomplished with a lot less suffering.
  3. Good and evil are contrasts to each other. You can't have good without evil. The rejoinder is that the premise is incorrect.
  4. We can't identify something as good without knowing evil. The rejoinder is that it is still good even if we don't know that.
  5. Maybe God has a different moral standard to ours. The rejoinder is that this is so much the worse for God. We are the arbiters of good and evil.
  6. Perhaps there is some underlying reason we can't understand. The rejoinder is that God would be evil to make us so stupid.
  7. God is not responsible for evil. The devil is. The rejoinder is that God is stronger than the devil, and still ultimately responsible.
  8. If we weaken the definition of God, then we can evade the problem. The rejoinder is that this makes God even less worthy of worship.

It is difficult to respond in detail, since I only have a summary to go on. The free will defence I will discuss below, and save my response until then. But note that the rejoinder does not deny the validity of this response, but merely questions its universality. It implicitly acknowledges that the free will defence could deal with some evil; but it needs something else in addition to it to account for the rest of the evil. If this is true, then the logical argument of evil fails: there is no direct contradiction between evil by itself and God. One is forced to fall back to the evidential argument for evil.

The response to the second point might have some validity, but it is difficult for us to judge quite how much suffering is required to bring about the maximum virtue. It could be that there is just enough; certainly Professor Stenger did not argue otherwise. Equally, the response accepts that this reply can explain some evil. It might still be part of the solution, if not the whole solution.

For the third point, I would disagree that good and evil are independent of each other. Evil is the privation of good -- a distortion, excess or lack of some good. As such evil is dependent on goodness. But this is just a critique of the particular way the rejoinder is expressed. The question behind this response is whether it is logically coherent to have maximal goodness without the possibility of evil. If there is a possibility for evil, then given enough opportunity then there would be evil. This is a trickier question, which I will have to defer to my later discussion.

For the fourth point, I agree with the rejoinder.

The fifth point I discussed above. If you adopt a different standard of evil to God's then the argument from evil equivocates with different definitions of evil in points 3 and 7, and thus the argument becomes invalid. The rejoinder does not address this problem. Indeed, I consider the rejoinder utterly vile, since it claims that we know better than God. This is just pride, which is ultimately the source of all human evil and all of our societal problems.

For the sixth rejoinder, I would argue that since God is infinite and we are finite, there are going to be things that God understands which we don't. That doesn't make the response the response that we are too stupid to understand palatable, and I don't think it can be the whole response to the argument from evil. But natural law and divine command ethics allow us to identify different virtues and vices. It is much harder to weigh them up to say which violations are worse. Since some defences of the argument rely on that comparison. The burden is on the advocate of the argument from evil is to prove a contradiction between the evil observed in the world and the existence of God. If at some point as part of that proof it is required to make a decision on some point where there is insufficient evidence, where some possible options allow the argument from evil to proceed and others cause it to fail, it is not wrong for the person attacking the argument to point out that our ignorance prevents the argument from being completed.

I can see some merit in the seventh rejoinder, but the problem is that this can be combined with the free will defence. The argument would be that it is a greater evil for God to restrict Satan's free will than it would be to scupper his devilish schemes, at least in some cases. Indeed, if one could say that the devil was responsible for natural disasters, and humans for human disasters, then this would cover the whole ground. But I don't think that this response is viable for the Christian, Jew or Muslim (though it might work for some types of gnostic), since it is God, not the devil, who sustains the physical world.

I reject the eighth response, though not for Professor Stenger's reason. The point is that as an apologist we are trying to defend classical theism. God, and His attributes, are as proved through the processes of reasoning built on the cosmological argument, and (for the Christian) from the Biblical text. There is some imprecision here, but not very much. To weaken the attributes of God to evade the problem of evil would be to admit that the classical theist or Biblical God is disproved by the argument from evil. Of course, it might be that the classical theist understanding of God has different definitions for those attributes than those assumed by the atheist presenting the argument from evil. If so, the classical theist has every right to stand his ground and accuse the atheist of attacking a straw man.

Finally, Professor Stenger raises the question of whether God is, in fact, evil. The quick answer to this in 'No.' Firstly, God's goodness is proved from the principles of classical theism. Secondly, existence is itself a good, so the most perfectly evil being would lack existence, and not exist. Thirdly, if we can avoid this, then there is no single perfectly evil being. Almost every virtue is surrounded by two vices, one an excess and the other a lack. That means that for every such virtue, there are at least two different and opposite states of greatest evil. Multiply that by all the different virtues, and one would get a vast number of possible evil gods. Which one would you choose to be your evil god? In any case, we lose the uniqueness of the purported evil god.

Professor Stenger once again raises the various purportedly evil deeds of God in the Old Testament. I addressed those in the previous posts. He also mentions the possibility of an evil counterpart to God, or a God split into good and evil parts, but dismisses these as inconsistent with Christianity. I would agree with that, and these are not responses to the argument from evil open to the Christian.

The free will and justice response to the argument from evil

The first thing to do when critically examining the argument from evil is to look at the definitions it uses, and whether they are in line with what is used in classical theism (or derived from the end point of the cosmological and teleological arguments). If they are not, then either we are equivocating around these definitions (by accepting a classical theist definition of God in premise 1 and a different definition in premise 4), or attacking a straw man.

Omnipotence is usually defined as that God can do anything that does not involve a contradiction, and which is consistent with the divine nature. God is ultimately responsible for all physical events, and can select which event occurs as He pleases -- subject to internal coherence and the divinely selected essences of material subjects. God can will a dog to become a man, perhaps through various rearrangements of matter, but cannot make something be both simultaneously a dog and a man. This definition does place restrictions on omnipotence, some of which are important to the response to the argument.

More importantly, there is the definition of divine benevolence. This is understood by classical theists, at least Christians, to be the promotion of goodness. This is not the same thing as the elimination of evil. Of course, one has to have a definition of good and evil, and I will adopt that from natural law, which has a strong background in Christian philosophy, and is not incompatible with the Christian scriptures. Goodness means being fit for purpose. Evil means a privation of some good, or a lack of some good, or distortion of a good, or an overemphasis of a good at the expense of other goods.

One might think that with these definitions that to promote good is the same thing as to eliminate evil. But that is clearly not the case. For example, let us suppose that we have certain beings which are 90% good, and thus 10% evil. We can choose to create as many of these as we like. If we want to maximise goodness, then we would want as many of these beings as possible. If we want to minimise evil, then we would create none of them. There would be different actions depending on the goal.

In practice, of course, this picture is vastly oversimplified. Firstly, there is the issue about whether it is possible to quantify the degree of goodness. I would personally say that it isn't. But we can say whether or not a being is perfectly good, and we can say that some people are in a morally better state than others, at least in certain respects. (Comparing failures in different virtues is harder). Since the argument does not rely on a precise degree of goodness, but only that the beings are not perfectly good, this objection only modifies the argument (and demands that it is reformulated in a less simplistic way) but does not affect the conclusions.

Secondly, the degree of goodness obtainable by each being will depend on the circumstances and on how many beings of each type there are. It is not going to be a simple linear relationship. For example, if the beings are living organisms, competing for limited resources on a planet, then at first the creatures would be fine as you increase their numbers. All of them will have what they need to thrive, and could well have a high percentage of goodness. But increase too much, and their combined needs start to exceed the resources available. Some of them will starve. Adding another one will only make the conditions of the others worse, to the extent that it make things worse rather than better. Thus the amount of goodness is not directly proportional to the number of creatures, and not as simple as in my example. But the overall point still stands. If you seek to minimise evil, you would have few of these creatures, and maybe still none. If you seek to maximise good, you will have many of them.

Thirdly, there is the question of whether or not God would create imperfect beings. The thought is that since God is omnipotent, surely He could create a universe where all beings are 100% good? For example, in the previous paragraph, I discussed living organisms competing for limited resources. Why not simply make it such that there is infinite resource?

The problem with this suggestion is that it is not clear that it is coherent. We know, from fine tuning arguments, that God is very much constrained in how He selects the fundamental physical parameters if He wants a universe which can support life. He cannot drastically change the universe beyond what we observe. There is room for miraculous intervention, but not constant miraculous intervention for the sake of a people in rebellion to God. An infinite number of resources would imply an infinite planet, which in turn would require an infinite gravitational field, which would destroy any life form on it.

Thus we are left with organisms fighting over finite resources, and it is not clear that the maximum goodness is to be achieved by having sufficiently few organisms that they can all satisfy all their various wants.

But the most fundamental response to the idea that God would be better off creating a world populated by morally perfect beings is that from free will; that is to say a rational agent who can choose between pursuing goodness and pursuing evil. This rational agent is not compelled in these choices by God (even though God ultimately sustains the being, the choices are nonetheless made through the regular operations of general providence, without miraculous intervention, and thus can be said to arise from the being). This response is based on two premises. Firstly, that it is better with regards to the moral calculation when an agent freely chooses to pursue goodness than if a being with no choice in the matter does something good. Secondly that a being with the possibility of choosing evil will sometimes choose evil. The second of these premises follows from the definition of possibility. The first is because the free will has a particular end, which the constrained will lacks. That end is to follow goodness. So let us say that good-A is the good that we choose to do. Both the being with free will (that chooses rightly) and that with a constrained will achieve good-A. However, the one with free will has also achieved a second type of goodness, good-B, in that their will is also fit for purpose in that it has chosen to follow good-A. Thus the being which freely chooses to do good has both good-A and good-B, while the constrained being has just good-A. So there is a greater possibility for goodness if there is a free will.

From this it follows that if there is a free will there will be some evil (because some of them will choose to reject good-A, which also entails a privation of good-B), but, as long as the beings choose to pursue good-A sufficiently frequently, there will still be greater goodness than if they lacked free will.

Of course, it might be the case that people will choose to do evil to such a degree that it overcomes the moral benefits of having a free will, in which case God is perfectly in his rights to, say, wipe them all out in a global flood and start again with a small group of people who will pursue goodness enough to justify their occasional poor choices. Once the world is repopulated, there will be greater goodness than if you had just let the degenerate continue in their way.

And this brings me to the second part of the argument, namely justice. Justice is a practical application of agape love. Agape is to desire goodness, and consequently to oppose avoidable evil. By an avoidable evil, I mean when a moral agent could have chosen to do good, but decided not to. An unavoidable evil is when you have a choice between two evils. For example, at the Munich conference, the British and French had the choice of either going to war or letting Hitler have is way in parts of Czechoslovakia (which turned out to become more than they agreed). War is a terrible evil. So was letting Hitler have his way unopposed. I will let historians debate over whether or not they made the least bad choice, but there was not a good choice available to them. So agape has its own natural end, namely the promotion of goodness and to not tolerate avoidable evil. To be fit to fulfil that end is in itself a good, and to not do so is an evil. Justice is what happens when you apply this to individual beings. It means that those who are morally good, you should seek to raise up, in proportion to their goodness. And that you should seek to lower down those who are morally evil, in proportion to their evil. This lowering down will itself cause suffering and harm to those individuals involved -- if nothing else, by frustrating their desire to perform evil and get away with it, or even (in some cases) be celebrated for it. But to not do so is to tolerate evil, which (when you have the power to do something about it) is itself an evil.

So this, in summary, is the free will defence. It states that a morally perfect God would seek to create beings with free will, the ability to choose between good and evil, as this world has the possibility of more goodness than one without free will. Logic states that in such a world there would be some evil. And the definition of omnipotence used in classical theism does not include the ability to do the logically impossible. This response is usually regarded as defeating the logical problem of evil. The existence of evil is not inconsistent with a single omnipotent, omniscient and perfectly benevolent God.

But could God not just act to remove evil from the world? Is that removal gradual or sudden? If it is to be gradual, then that is precisely what God is doing according to the Christian gospel. Through Abraham, Moses, and most importantly Christ, and the Church that witnesses to Christ, God has provided the means for people to repent and turn from evil to good. If the removal is to be sudden, then the only way that can be done is to remove evil people (either by making them disappear, or by forcibly turning them into someone else). But nobody is wholly evil, so making them disappear would remove good from the world; and it would deny these people the chance to repent and turn to goodness. Changing them would remove the good of their free will. So it seems that, given a world with evil in it, a benevolent God is restricted to the gradual approach.

But what of the evidential argument from evil?

The obvious objection to the free will response is that it only directly accounts for some evil we see in the world, but not all of it. Earthquakes, volcanoes, pandemics and so on cause evil -- they kill people, for example, which prevents them from fulfilling any of their natural ends and is thus an evil. But these arise just from the workings of nature, and not as the result of any moral agent. None of us choose to suffer the results of an earthquake. Thus this sort of evil certainly seems to be present in the world, but evades the free will response.

So the question is whether it is probable, given what we know about God, that this sort of evil which we observe would exist.

First of all I should say that a great deal of this evil happens due to the normal workings of the laws of physics. For example, the earth needs to be roughly the size it is and roughly the distance it is from the sun to support life, and to rotate so that the heat spreads evenly around the globe. This inevitably leads to the various extreme weather events. Some tectonic activity is required to vent out gases needed for oceanic life to develop; after which volcanoes and earthquakes are inevitable. Now God could prevent these things, or prevent them from causing harm, through miraculous acts, but it would have to be a miracle. In other words, natural evils are an unavoidable consequence of the same factors that allow for life. You can't have one without the other. So better to have life with the occasional natural disaster, than no life at all. Is this response enough to explain natural evil? Perhaps for physical natural evils (although more needs to be said to show this; especially with regards to the question of why God doesn't constantly intervene miraculously), though probably not for biological ones. One can imagine a world without viruses and mosquitoes.

But now I can bring in a few aspects of Christianity. Firstly, if Christianity is true, then our view of the world is very distorted. Human history in Christian thought is divided into various periods, one of which can be divided into a number of sub periods. Firstly, there is the period before the creation of man. Then the period between the creation of man and the fall of man. In this period, God would have intervened miraculously to prevent natural evils. Then there is the period we are currently living in, between the fall of man and the final judgement, which can also be split into before and after Moses, before and after Christ, and so on. Then finally, there is the period after judgement, where, at least for those judged as righteous, there would again be miraculous intervention to prevent natural evil. This final period will be eternal. Thus any divine calculation of good and evil would be greatly skewed by that final period. While when we look at the world we exclude it, because it has not yet come (if Christianity is true). We thus only see a tiny fraction of the whole. Any evil happening now, which we put into our own calculations, would be insignificant to the eternal bliss that we don't see and thus don't account for.

Then there is the nature of the fall itself. The opening chapters of Genesis are crucial to Christian theology, because they explain both the origin of goodness in the universe and the origin of evil. In paraphrase, the story goes as follows. God creates man, and places him into paradise. God then tells man "See, I have created this really great place for you. Now, I am giving you a choice. Either you can continue to live in paradise, but you will have to be nice to each other and play by the rules. Or you can go your own way and ignore the rules, and live a life of independence from me, as much as possible. But if you choose to live independently of me, you will equally lose my protection against natural evils. I will govern the world through general providence, but miracles for your sake will be rare and only when you surrender." Mankind thinks this over for a while, and then replies "Screw you, God. I'm big enough to live by myself. I want independence." God replies "OK. So be it. But should you come to regret it, I'll offer a way out." That way out is eventually provided through the covenant with Abraham, reinforced by Moses, and then brought to fulfilment in the person of Jesus Christ.

And, to a large extent, that attitude I have attributed to mankind has continued to this day. Or we have turned to man-made idols to try to relieve it rather than God. Even within the Church, there are few who have fully repudiated it. In other words, while God could prevent natural disasters through acts of special providence, to do so would still be to deny human freedom. In particular the choice to live independently of God.

Obviously the text of Genesis 2 and 3 doesn't put it in exactly those words. But that's the overall gist. Mankind faces natural evil because, as a species, we have chosen to reject the only solution to it: life in conscious dependence on God.

The question then becomes whether God could have let us break the moral rules while still miraculously protecting us from natural evil. There are several reasons why this might not be optimal. Firstly, natural evil reminds us that the world is broken. It gives us reason to seek to fulfil what is for the Christian our primary purpose on the earth: to reflect the full glory of God by living in full fellowship with Him. Secondly, natural evil allows us to train ourselves in compassion and the virtues as we aid each other. Thirdly, there is the issue of justice.

It is difficult for people influenced by Rousseau, with the understanding of humankind as fundamentally good, to see the Christian perspective. People die in earthquakes because we deserve to die in earthquakes. That is how bad we are. That is not to say that the people who do die are worse than those who don't: we all deserve fates similar to that, but some are fortunate enough to be spared it (only to inevitably meet some other equally unpleasant end later). The natural consequence of sin is death, whether it comes quickly or slowly, and it would be unjust to prevent that. In other words, it is a greater evil (against justice, and respect for human freedom and desire for independence from God) to prevent such evils than it would be to allow them.

Couldn't God have achieved all this with less evil? But much of natural evil is simply the consequence of physical law. That is what we want as a species, in rejection of God. Any miracle is enough to violate that freedom. God does not want people to perish, but He wants people to come to Him freely out of a positive desire for goodness and for God. A great miraculous sign in the heavens, impossible for anyone to deny, would certainly reveal God's existence to everyone. But it wouldn't bring people to God for the right reason: a desire for moral perfection and full fellowship with God. Neither would God preventing a particular earthquake. As an atheist, if there was a hurricane heading your way, and then it suddenly stopped just before it hit the coast (through divine miraculous action), would that cause you to repent and turn from your sins? I suspect not. At best it could make you believe in God -- but not turn to Him.

This is not to deny that miracles happen. They do, generally on a small scale, just affecting particular individuals or communities. Those communities would either already be submissive to God, or would respond in the correct way in repentance and awe.

But is it unjust that people of God, Christians and perhaps some others who search for God without the chance of knowing Christ, should die horrible deaths when they do desire to reverse mankind's choice for evil? But for the Christian, this life is not the end. The sufferings of the present age are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Yes, we die, often suffering terribly in the process. Christians are still tainted by sin, still evil, and thus deserving of death. But, through resurrection, death is not the end, and the decision that the Christian comes to reject that initial prideful declaration of independence will nonetheless still be fulfilled. And the decision that the non-Christian comes to to proudly accept that declaration of independence, despite the pain and suffering that results from it, will also be fulfilled.

Now, I don't expect an atheist or non-Christian to accept that account. But that's not the issue. The issue is whether it can be shown to be insufficient to overcome the evidential problem of evil. If it can't be shown to be insufficient, then the evidential argument loses its force. It provides an explanation of why it might be a worse evil to prevent the moral and natural evil in the world, and why there is the extent of evil that there is (which basically just follows physical law). It assumes that the Christian account of God and man is correct, but, when the evidential problem of evil is used to target Christianity, that is the assumption which should be made (for the sake of the argument). The problem is one of weighting different evils. On one hand, there would be the natural evils of earthquakes, pandemics and so on. On the other hand there would be the evil of injustice and denying the human decision to live without God. Which is worse in God's eyes? That is impossible for us to judge a priori. We can identify evil using natural and divine law, but it is much harder to give relative weights to different evils. Proving the account wrong should not be a matter of subjective judgement, but as part of an objective framework we know too little about.

One further objection: what about all the natural evil before the creation of man? In the age of the dinosaurs, and so on? The question is whether or not this was the sort of evil that the Christian God would prevent. There would have been earthquakes, volcanoes, and so on, and many living beings would have suffered through those. Once again, this sort of suffering is the default position if the laws of physics work out as expected. The question is whether God has a good reason to do things differently. The laws of physics are a description of how God sustains the universe in the absence of any desire to benefit or harm part of his creation. Non-human animals (at least on this planet) are not created in the image of God. God's purpose in creation, according to the Biblical account, is us (and possibly similar creatures on other planets). The creatures that lived before our species were good as living beings, but died. How they died is perhaps less important than that they did die, ending the good of their existence. But would things have been better if they lived? Clearly this planet can only support a limited number of organisms. The cycle of birth, procreation, and death maintains a stable biosphere. Leave out one of those parts, and would things be better as a whole? The deaths of these animals is bad for those animals, but others gain from it. So it is not obvious that miraculously intervening to save those animals and plants would lead to a greater good.

Finally, I ought to make a few comments on the suffering versions of these arguments. Is suffering, or the degree of suffering we observe, inconsistent with a perfectly benevolent God? This would only be the case if suffering were an avoidable evil. But suffering is not always an evil. Discipline, and just punishment are obvious counterexamples. Sometimes a little pain is necessary to warn us off progressing towards a greater evil. Pain is usually an indication that something is wrong in our bodies; it is not in itself the wrong, no matter how unpleasant it is to experience it. So suffering should not be equated with evil. Some suffering is evil; other suffering is not. It depends on whether it impairs a creature from being fit for its natural purposes. If it aids the creature -- or other creatures -- in being fit for those purposes then it is a good. If suffering is not an evil, then there is no good reason for God to seek to prevent it. Those examples of suffering which are an evil are covered by the argument from evil.

Mackie's formulation of the argument

J.L. Mackie is credited with reviving the problem of evil in atheist literature. The problem has an important place in the atheist argument. Most atheist discourse is in attempting to counter the specific arguments for theism, or to critique religious texts. This is not, however, to make an argument for atheism. If successful it just shows that the critiqued arguments are insufficient to demonstrate God's existence. There might be better arguments which do. Or there might be no rational argument supporting God's existence, but God happens to exist anyway.

The problem from evil, however, is often presented as the atheist moving onto the attack, and presenting a positive case for atheism. This is how Mackie opens his presentation of it; saying that the argument can be used to show religious belief as irrational. I'm not so sure that this is the case. One could, for example, avoid it by adopting a dualist philosophy, or one where God is not perfectly morally good. These would avoid the problem of evil, but are hardly atheistic.

Here I will review two of Mackie's works, his original 1955 paper in Mind, and his presentation in The Miracle of Theism. The two articles are closely aligned, so rather than repeat myself what I present below will be a synthesis of them. I will use the original 1955 paper as a base, but bring in additional arguments or clarifications from the later work.

Mackie sees that there will be a tension between God's moral perfection, omnipotence, and existence. He states that at most two of these can be true. He defines omnipotence as there being no limits to what an omnipotent being can do. He also states that good is opposed to evil, such that a good thing always pushes out evil as far as it can. Having framed the problem, Mackie addresses various responses to it.

Firstly, Mackie acknowledges that the problem can be solved if one is willing to relax the divine attributes. He mentions relaxing omnipotence, so there are things that an omnipotent being cannot do. Other approaches include taking a different view on the nature of evil, for example by describing evil as a privation of goodness. He critiques these; those who seek to restrict omnipotence to solve this problem will rarely do so consistently when tackling over issues. He views the privation definition of evil as a falling to something akin to the naturalistic fallacy: he treats it as a circular definition. One can define evil as that which is to be morally avoided, and as a privation of good, but what is the connection between the two definitions? Mackie does not believe that these approaches can ultimately be held coherently.

It should be observed that the free will defence I used above could potentially come under what Mackie regarded as an adequate solution. Omnipotence is limited by the need for logical consistency. I do adopt the privation theory of evil, and use a definition of goodness that evades the naturalistic fallacy. If goodness is that which we ought to aim at as moral agents, then clearly a privation or lack of goodness is something which as moral agents we ought to try to avoid, which seems to be a reasonable definition of evil. These qualifications are not arbitrary: they arise from the standard working out of the theory behind classical theism.

In addition to these solutions which Mackie holds as adequate but impossible in practice to hold, he also discusses several possible defences which he regards as inadequate.

The existence of goodness without evil

The first defence he responds to is the claim that "Good cannot exist without evil." This is not a claim that a classical theist would make. God is perfectly good, and exists without evil. God need not have created anything: he alone is not dependent of anything else for His existence. So it is clear that the classical theist would say that good can exist without evil. Given that this is not an argument I would support, I need not discuss Mackie's own defence to it.

Evil as a means to goodness

Secondly, he questions whether evil is necessary as a means to good. He dismisses this as the word necessary makes it a causal law. If God cannot break that law then that questions His omnipotence. I am not totally convinced by this response.

Firstly, we can question whether the type of causal law implied would be different to those encountered in physics. Physical causality links events or states of substances. Goodness can be thought of in terms of particular states which are fit to fulfil those functions, and we can think of causes which imply transitions to those states. If there are transitions between evil states and good states of being, then we might describe these transitions by a causal law. But this strikes me as being different from what those who imply that evil can be used to bring about a greater good. For example the evil of physical suffering can lead to greater compassion. These are not physical states as such. So Professor Mackie must have been thinking about a different type of causality. But then what type of causality does he have in mind?

Secondly, we can question what is meant by law. In theism, the laws are a description of how God sustains the universe. When a theist argues that evil can lead to good, this is meant as saying that this is the means that God uses to bring about that goodness. God following a law defined in terms of His own usual mode of action is hardly a challenge to His omnipotence.

Thirdly, there is the question of what is meant by necessary. Is this logical necessity, in which certain types of goodness can only be produced in response to evil? If so, then it is not a challenge to God's omnipotence, at least as the classical theist defines it. Once again, we see Mackie's main weakness: he attacks straw men definitions of omnipotence and benevolence rather than what theists actually believe. Is it some other form of necessity? If so, then it is not clear what Mackie has in mind. Equally, one can question whether the defender of this argument would phrase it using the word necessary. It might not be strictly necessary, but merely the best way of bringing about that good.

Finally, there is the question of the nature of evil. Evil, in classical theism, is not a thing in itself, but rather the absence or distortion of goodness. Causal laws connect different things; they do not connect an absence with a thing. God's benevolence is a desire for goodness; that is to convert that which is evil to good, and to bring about greater goodness. That there is evil at some point in time does not come into the calculation; if it provides a means to greater goodness than would have been achieved if there was no evil in the first place then that is how God would operate. After all, to bring something from a state of evil to one of goodness is itself a good (as a consequence of the virtue of charity), which would not be possible if there were no evil.

Possibly what Mackie means is that if there is a law stating that some types of good are only possible by overcoming evil, then God should be able to break that law and produce the good without the corresponding evil. But it is not clear that this would be so. The first question is whether it is logically possible to have those goods without the evil. For example, the good of battling against evil and triumphing; or of rejecting a life of vice for a relationship with God are only possible if there was first an evil. One might be able to have the final relationship with God without having passed through evil, but this would lack the additional good of the triumph against evil. Secondly, God's goal is to promote goodness. It costs Him nothing to achieve that by the means of people overcoming an evil life. The end result is still goodness; the transitory evil does not enter the equation.

Having said that, I am not fully convinced by this response to the argument from evil myself. At best it can be a response to the logical problem of evil; it would be insufficient to counter the experiential argument.

The universe is better with some evil

Thirdly, Mackie considers the objection that the universe is better with some evil than no evil. Now we are starting to get closer to the response I offered above. However, Mackie takes this in a different way. He offers two ways in which this might be interpreted. Firstly, contrasts often lead to more beauty in works of art, so why not also in the tapestry of good and evil. This is a straw man as far as I am concerned; it is an obviously false analogy. Secondly he considers the notion of progress, so that the gradual overcoming of evil with good is better than something statically good.

Makie responds that the type of evil usually thought of in this objection is physical suffering, with a corresponding good of physical pleasure. But there is also a higher and more important good, a second order good, which arises, and in some cases only can arise, in the overcoming of the first type of evil. This second order good is seen as outweighing the first order evil. So God's goodness is a desire to maximise this second order goodness.

Mackie objects to this response because it disagrees with his own definition of good and evil, where good seeks to eliminate evil. He argues that it might be thought that second order goodness is derivative of first order goodness, and therefore lesser to it, in that it has first order goodness as its goal. He further argues that having God seek to maximise goodness rather than evil might be discomforting to some theists. Thirdly, and in his view more significantly, alongside the second order goodness there is also a second order evil, which manifests itself in cruelty and the desire to do harm. If second order goodness is more important than first order evil, then the same would be true for second order evil. In other words, God would seek most of all to eliminate this evil, and its existence is thus evidence against the existence of God.

However, Mackie's whole response is based on a straw man: he is using his own definition of goodness and benevolence, and not that used by classical theists. I am not at all discomforted by the idea that God's aim is to maximise goodness -- all goodness, correctly defined as being fit for purpose rather than in terms which are susceptible to the naturalistic fallacy -- regardless of whether that involves some evil. Of course God is opposed to human cruelty. But that is answered by the free will defence, which is discussed below.

The free will defence

The free will defence is that evil is due to human free will. Mackie offers three responses to this defence. Firstly, he questions whether the free will defence is sufficient to explain natural evils. Secondly, he questions whether is it sufficient to overcome the problem. Thirdly, he considers the notion of free will to be incoherent.

First of all, he notes Platinga's answer to the problem of natural evils: that such things could have been caused by demonic figures. He seems to think that this fails to explain those cases where human and natural evils are intertwined: circumstances not arising from a deliberate human intention that cause people to move towards an unjust ideology. I don't really see Mackie's point here: while such evils might not be fully explained by human free will, nor by angelic free will, but they could be explained by a combination of the two.

In the second objection, he states that God could give people free will, but in such a way that they always freely choose the good. He believes that this should be possible for an omnipotent being. In particular, an omniscient being would know what evils giving people free will would lead to, and compensate as appropriate. If there is no logical impossibility of people choosing a good action on one occasion, then there is no impossibility of them choosing it on every occasion. God could make people who both act freely and always choose what is right.

To support this, he invokes the Christian understanding of the resurrected life. Here the Christians will spend eternity doing what is righteous, without their free will being compromised. Surely that means that it is possible for God to create people who always freely choose what is good.

The obvious objection here is that free will in this sense means the ability to choose between good and evil options; and if people have this ability then necessarily sometimes they will choose the evil option. Mackie responds to this objection by saying that this relies on freedom meaning complete randomness. The choices are only free if they are not determined by people's characters.

Complete randomness, on the other hand, causes problems for the notion of free will. He states that choices can only be free in the sense needed to overcome the problem of evil if they are not determined by people's characters. Only here can God escape blame, as God made them as they are including their character. But if the actions are random, then how can it be the result of a will? And how can random actions be the most important good? In other words, if the freedom granted to people allows enough variation to allow them to choose what is evil, then how can this freedom be considered a good that outweighs the evil that they do?

Mackie therefore believes that this solution needs to use two different notions of freedom. One in which freedom is a good more valuable than its abuse. The second in which freedom is randomness, to avoid ascribing to God the decision of men to go wrong.

So what should we make of this response? Firstly, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by free will, and to what extent it is and is not under God's control. Secondly, it is necessary to discuss the origins of character. It is also necessary to consider what sort of decisions that people make which lead to evil.

Free will implies two concepts. Firstly that it should not be controlled by something outside the agent, with a caveat I discuss below when that outside agency is God. So, for example, saying that one's decisions are determined at least in part by one's own character is not contrary to having free will in this sense. Having the decisions determined wholly by someone else's character would be. Secondly, the decisions made by a free will should be at least some of the time unpredictable. Unpredictable does not mean that is is sheer randomness. It certainly does not mean that any option is available. It could just mean that the person has to decide between two similar options; maybe one of them is far more probable than the other, but there is an element of doubt. This unpredictability does not mean that the person's will is not the cause of the decision. There is an analogue here with the distinction between substance and event causality we see in particle physics. We can still trace the decision, which is ultimately the actualisation of a particular state in the brain, back to other previous brain states which determine the character. There will be rules determining the possible transitions. In this sense we say that the person is still responsible for the decision. But the events themselves are unpredictable. Does that unpredictability imply that something outside the person is responsible for those decisions? No, because we are each more than just the brain states; the history of those events is part of what makes us who we are. In other words those unpredictable events are part of what makes us the people we are, and as such cannot be thought of as being external to the person. They are still guided by our character, but not completely but only partially determined by the previous actual state of our brains. For example, the unpredictable decisions arise when we have a fixed goal, but are uncertain of the best means to achieve that goal, so may choose one or the other, or when we submit to temptation in a moment of weakness, or when we simply act on a whim. None of these are contrary to having our character having the major part in informing the decisions; just sometimes there are two what appear to be equally good options and we have to select one of them.

So to what extent is God responsible for all this? God is obviously there behind the scenes sustaining everything. But God's actions in the world are divided for convenience into two classes. There is general providence, which is how he would act as though he were impartial to mankind, and which is described by the laws of physics. Then there is special providence, which describes those cases where God acts to benefit or harm a particular person or group of people, and which leads to miracles. When we discuss human free will as not being coerced by something outside itself, with regards to God's activity we mean that it is governed by general providence. God is still involved, but He is being neutral. Occasionally God might intervene with acts of special providence (which would be required if God were to force us to always do good), but such things would either be very rare or with our explicit consent. (The prayer, "God, make me good.") So God does sustain our will through his action, and has the power to intervene miraculously in addition to that, but, according to the free will defence, does not do so because overriding our freedom would be a greater evil than what it would prevent.

So what of human character? This is at the heart of virtue ethics; to be morally good means having a good character. Character is formed partly through our experiences -- those around us -- partly through our natural dispositions, and partly through our own choices. Character also drives our choices, in a feedback loop. God is behind all of this through general providence, but can also help shape us through special providence. Character does not completely determine our actions, but it does do so to a large extent. But we can break the limits of our characters, and develop as people, either to grow better or to grow worse. Our purpose as moral beings is to build up a virtuous character; that is one which is predisposed towards the good.

Goodness is defined as being fit for purpose, and it strictly refers to states of being rather than actions. A being can exist in numerous states. One of these (or a particular superposition if we keep the basis fixed) will be actual at any given time. The rest of them potential. Some of these states will be fit for purpose and thus good; others will deviate from that state of maximum possible goodness. A virtuous character is part of what makes up the good state for a moral agent. As stated, our characters partly arise on account of those people who influence us, and from the circumstances we encounter, but we are in part responsible for it. We can choose to be brave with sufficient self-control. Since all of these states are possible, it is possible for a being to not be good, and, with regards to moral character and some physical aspects of our being as well, some of these failures are due at least in part by our own choices and thus we are morally responsible for them. Every existent being shares some goodness, since existence is the ground of every other good. Evil is thus not something which exists in the same sense that we say that good things exist. Evil is just to be actualised in as state which deviates from that of maximum possible goodness for that species of being. Only God, being simple and without potentiality, lacks the capacity to be in a state other than being maximally good. Since the beings have the capacity to be in states that are not perfectly good, and if they have the freedom to shape their own moral character -- and if they do not, it is not freedom -- it is inevitable that some will fall short of maximal goodness and thus there will be some evil. However, even these imperfect beings still exhibit a great deal of goodness.

The ends of our free will include the tendency to choose for ourselves what sort of being we want to be. However, coupled with the rest of our nature, this can only be of ultimate good if we desire to be good. Thus the ultimate end for our will is to choose goodness for ourselves (and not have goodness imposed on us, which denies the free part of the free will), which in particular means choosing a close communion with God. Thus to choose goodness brings about two goods -- firstly, the good that is chosen, and secondly the good that arises because the will is fit for its purpose in that regard. A being that lacks free will will possess the first of these goods, but will not possess the second.

God's benevolence is defined in terms of agape love; the desire for goodness. Evil, as it does not exist but is an absence of perfection, does not come into the equation. To force beings to be of good character, except when they have chosen to be so helped, violates their freedom, and thus invalidates the good of their free will. Since freedom is an essential tendency of the will, to deny it is to cause harm to our will, and thus induce an evil, or to have a state of affairs that is less perfect than it could be. It is a complete denial of this good. To permit a free will, on the other hand, can allow us to deviate from the good in other ways, and, because of the difficulty -- I would say impossibility -- of us setting our sights on the state of perfectly good state for both ourselves and others, some evil is inevitable.

People do not choose to be or to do evil. The problem is that the issue is not binary -- good verses evil -- but that there are many competing goods and virtues. Aristotle was correct when he stated that many virtues lie between two extremes. Have a quality in either excess or deficit, and it falls into evil. What is the optimum position on this scale is not fixed, but depends on circumstance. And this is true across a large number of different characteristics. Thus to maintain a virtuous character is a fine balancing act. What happens, at least at first, when people turn to evil is that they over-emphasise one good at the expense of others. For example people might become so obsessed with protecting the environment -- which is good -- that they follow polices which, usually indirectly, drive people into poverty. Others become so obsessed with creating wealth -- which is good -- that they do significant damage the environment. There is a balance in the middle, but it is difficult to find. In every evil ideology there is at its heart a concern for something good, but either exaggerated to absurdity or distorted through ignorance. So there is nothing that is pure evil. There is always a spark of goodness.

So, to respond to Mackie's first objection, is it possible for God to create people so that they always freely choose good? It is not as simple as that. Mackie seems to be operating from a different understanding of goodness and evil that is used in classical theism. In fact, in his 1955 paper, he conceded that the privation theory of evil, which classical theists generally accept, invalidates his argument. People's choices do focus on a good -- but in excess and to an extreme. So it is not just a matter of having people choose good, but to value each good to the right degree. Can God make people so that their character is such that they always make the right choice? Character is at least partly self-determined. For God to make people have good character would be to constrain both their actions, and thus their free will, and those who influence them, so another set of free wills. But if those choices are constrained by God, then they are no longer free. So this suggestion strikes me as absurd.

Does this restrict God's omnipotence? No. Firstly, God is still in full control, sustaining everything through general providence. Secondly, omnipotence is about what God can do, not what he actually does do. If God views a good character freely chosen as better than one which is compelled to be as it is, then He has good reason to allow personal the freedom to build up a good character or not. But does this imply that people's actions are random? No. It means that people's actions are unpredictable, but nonetheless caused and shaped by their character and the various mental events which make up the human person. This is all governed by general providence, including the unpredictable but not uncaused quantum events.

Does the existence of the Christian resurrected life imply that there is room for God to create people with free will who always choose the good? Except that is not the full story. People can only choose the good through special providence -- miracles. They become, through the act of God, slaves to righteousness rather than slaves to sin. This at first sight seems to contravene their freedom. But the point is that during this pre-resurrection life they freely consented to that. People desire goodness, recognise that it can only be achieved with help from God, and thus willingly submit to God's protection. Without that first period, God would be acting without their consent, and this would indeed be a violation of freedom. But God acting with consent is not.

Would it be true that the freedom to choose evil is worse, on account of the evil chosen, than that there would be no freedom in the first place? The free will argument is built on the assumption that a freely chosen good is better than one not freely chosen; an assumption which is certainly plausible. But can enough evil outweigh that good? One again, we have the problem that the issue is not balancing good against evil, but maximising goodness. Evil does not exist in the strictest sense of the word; things exist in states which differ in their degree of goodness. Secondly, there is the problem how much evil, and to what degree? A tiny deviation from perfect goodness still implies some evil, but it is difficult to argue that this would be worse than destroying entirely the goodness of the free will. But it is certainly possible that sufficient choices away from the good might diminish the goodness gained by not restricting the free will. But the question is have we reached that mark, and where is it? Is the world we see around us, where people do often choose the good action, even if there are frequent wrong choices and some very serious wrong choices, necessarily bad enough that it would have been better to have not given us free will? It is not clear, despite the horrors we have seen and continue to see in human history, that that is so. Remember that human history is just a blip in comparison to eternity. It takes a great deal of evil to outweigh the good of eternal paradise, for which our current chaos is a necessary pre-requisite where people can know both good and its privation, and willing seek to accept God's grace to become good. Of course, it might be that the evil in this age will become too great that it becomes worse than the evil of constraining a free will. But then God will simply intervene to put an end to it: just as Christianity promises.

So Mackie's problems are firstly that he misunderstands the nature of freedom, seeing it as a dichotomy between complete randomness and actions being determined by character. This is possibly based on a poor understanding of causality, accepting Hume's flawed definition of it as a necessary connection. There is a middle ground where they are caused by the person (not determined, since substance causality does not imply that events are fixed), including to a large but not complete extent their character, but are still unpredictable. Unpredictable does not mean that the actions are not the responsibility of the person who made those choices. Nor does it mean that anything is possible; but only that there is more than one option; and the options could be quite similar to each other. He also does not seem to understand freedom as defined by the two characteristics I outlined above. Secondly, he ignores that character is not static, but something which can develop either towards virtue or towards vice. That development is something which we ourselves have some influence over -- and this is part of our freedom -- although to reach perfect virtue requires an act of special providence. Thirdly, his view of good and evil is too simplistic, thinking that people either choose good or choose evil, when in practice they choose one good to the detriment of others. He does not accept or use the understanding of goodness used in classical theism. Fourthly, he neglects the distinction between general and special providence. God does shape character, through general providence, which provides a system of fixed and neutral rules allowing people to develop themselves. So we can have both God underlying everything and individual freedom. God could override that freedom through special providence, but chooses not to as it would (usually) be less good than allowing people to continue.

Is God a moral agent?

A different response to the problem of evil was raised by Brain Davies. Davies starting point is that the God of classical theism is utterly different from us (and the rest of creation). It makes sense to describe a created being as either good or evil. The being has numerous different states of being, some of which will be fit for purpose, and others won't be. The being can change over time, and become either better or worse. But God is pure actuality, simple, immutable, and timeless. For a being with only one state, it is not clear that it makes sense to describe that state as good or evil in the same sense that we apply those terms to other beings.

The premise of the argument that Davies challenges is the one that if God were benevolent then He would seek to minimise evil. This premise makes an underlying assumption, namely that God is a moral agent similar to us, and his choices can be indicted as either good or evil. But is that true? It would seem to imply the statement,

"God acting as a God ought to act ought to eliminate evils where possible and develop virtuous behaviour."

If we replace God in this statement with a human being, then this would be the fundamental statement of ethics. We have the moral obligation to eliminate evils and become virtuous. But this statement is problematic when applied to God. Firstly, what does it mean by God developing virtue? God is immutable, and cannot develop. What does it mean by God acting as a God ought to act. God is not an example of a particular species, with its own natural ends and goals, but the unique source of all action. There is no moral authority which stands over God which obligates Him to act in a particular way.

In other words, the person who presents the problem of evil is in effect pointing to some suffering in the world and asking why God would permit that. In doing so, they are promoting themselves to be a moral judge over God. But only a moral agent, one whose essence is defined by a tendency or purpose, can be judged, on the basis of whether or not they are fit to fulfil that purpose, or worked towards its fulfilment or against it. God's essence is not defined by a particular purpose; God simply exists essentially. Therefore it is not just wrong to judge God for the suffering in the world, it is incoherent to do so.

The obvious objection to the argument as I have presented it so far is that there is a difference between an evil suffered and an evil done by something. The problem of evil concerns evil suffered in the world. The answer by Davies denies that it is incoherent to speak of evil being done by God. Surely there is a difference here, which damages the response?

There are two parts to the response. Firstly, the idea evil is a privation. You can't create evil, because you can only create things, and evil is not a thing. It is the absence of a thing. One can create goodness, because by creating something you are bringing it into existence, and every existent thing contains a certain amount of goodness. If that thing is not maximally good for its nature then it will be evil to a certain degree, but that evil is not something which has been created as such; you have just created something which is not as good as it could be.

Secondly, the reason that things are not created as good as they could be is in pursuit of some other good. If you have two things in competition with each other, then inevitably one of them will suffer. For example, when a lion eats an antelope, it is good for the lion, but not so good for the antelope. They can't both get what they need. And lions being carnivorous serves the purpose of keeping the antelope population in check. So evil is not willed by God in itself, but only as a concomitant of some good.

So evil suffered by one thing is just a side effect of the natural ends of something else being fulfilled (so God bringing about something good). Good is acting for the good. That good might be to respect freedom, or justice, or just the good of inanimate or animate objects to fulfil their ends.

The problem of evil can be phrased in two ways. Firstly, one can ask, why, if God is perfectly benevolent, does he not step in to prevent an evil. This way of phrasing the question is flawed, because it implies that natural processes act independently of God, and need to be prevented; when in practice everything proceeds through the acts of God. God cannot prevent something He is the cause of. The second way of phrasing the question is to ask why, if God is perfectly benevolent, does God act in such a way that leads to evil. But then God does not act with the purpose of having evil; God acts to promote goodness. Any evil in the world is a side-effect of that goal; when there are competing goods and the pursuit of one necessarily causes another being to be less than optimally good. Maybe even to suffer, although not all suffering is evil.

Can God create a world without competing goods? Yes. He could have created a lifeless and static universe. But it is not clear that such a world would be better than the one we live in.

Neither should we forget that the concept of goodness is not just restricted to animate beings. A rock has its natural tendencies, and these define what it means for a rock to be good. The earth's molten core has its natural tendencies as well. For God to step in to prevent a rock from falling would be an act of evil against the rock. There might be a reason to do so -- a desire to protect the goodness of whoever it is going to hit -- or there might not be. But, in causing the rock to fall, God would not be acting to harm whoever was standing beneath it. Particularly if that individual was in rebellion against God and did not want divine help alongside the consequences of that for their own behaviour. Instead, God would act to preserve the more general good of things fulfilling their natural tendencies.


The problem of evil is thus based on an mis-understanding of God's benevolence, treating it as the desire to prevent evil rather than (as in classical theism) the desire to promote goodness. If you add to this the privation theory of evil (again a component of classical theism), and the suggestion that God might desire to create a world where certain goods were in competition, so not all could be perfectly achieved (inevitable on a finite planet with limited resources and unlimited desire), then some evil in the world becomes inevitable. The logical problem of evil, when addressed against classical theism, including its ethical views, is not really a problem at all, and greatly overstated by atheists.

The evidential problem of evil is a bit more of a problem for the theist. But there remains the question of showing that the evil we observe is likely to be more than is necessary. We should not forget that we do not have the full facts. In particular, we can identify evils, but it is much harder to judge which of them is worse. We only see this age of the world, and not the new heavens and earth, so our view is limited by the suffering we observe as a preparation for that future (a necessary preparation, if Christianity is true). We are also, perhaps, biased by weighting human suffering higher than other goods, such as justice, and the goods of non-human and inanimate creatures. The burden on those who advocate the evidential problem of evil is to show that it is unlikely that God could have created a better world than we live in.

The usual tactic in the evidential problem is to present a scenario where there is an evil which God could seemingly have presented -- for example a young deer caught in a forest fire. It then states that we do not know of any possible justification for this evil; any good that outweighs the evil. It jumps from this to say that it is improbable that there is any such justification; and consequently that this argument decreases the probability that God exists. Multiply by numerous such examples, and God ends up with a very low probability of existing. This argument has several flaws. Firstly, there is a jump from what we don't know to an objective probability. This assumes that our knowledge is near complete, so that if there was a justification for the evil that we are very likely to be able to understand the reason for it. But why make this assumption? Our knowledge of the circumstances is very limited; our knowledge of moral principles even more so. There is no good reason to suppose that in every we should be able to understand God's reasoning. Secondly, there is some selection bias. We have certain examples of evil where we can make good guesses of what the justification for the evil might be, and other examples where we don't understand the reason. By only considering this second class, the proponents of the evidential argument from evil are drawing an incomplete and biased sample, which nullifies any argument from probability. Thirdly, there is the nature of probability itself. Probability is always contingent on our assumptions. In this case, we are making a set of assumptions, and concluding from them that it is improbable that God exists. But this says nothing about whether or not God actually exists. It only says something about the assumptions which were arbitrarily adopted. Fourthly, there are the usual problems of the atheist working from a different standard of goodness and evil, and in effect trying to stand in judgement over God. Maybe the reason that the atheist cannot think why God would allow the evil is because he is operating from a different ethical standard to God. In the atheist moral theory, there might be no justification; but that says nothing about how God is reasoning. The theist can turn the argument around saying that if there is such an act of evil, since God is perfectly good, and (for the theist) God is very likely to exist, there is a very high probability that there is a justification for that evil, regardless of whether or not we know what that justification is. To get a very low probability for there being a justification for the evil, the proponent of the evidential argument has to in effect assume that God has a low probability of existing. In other words, the atheist has to assume what he is trying to prove. Finally, the evidential argument relies on the ignorance of the person making the argument. Arguments from ignorance are rarely good. Atheists are quick to pounce on this when a theist makes an argument from ignorance. And they are right to do so. Just because one person does not know something and cannot think of a justification does not mean that it is not known by anyone, or that it could not be known by anyone who puts enough thought into it.

Thus neither the logical nor evidential arguments from evil are good reasons to deny the existence of the God of classical theism.

Is God a failed Hypothesis? Part 22: The Hiddenness argument

Reader Comments:

1. Prussia
Posted at 16:14:19 Sunday August 14 2022

Some people have tried to say that the stone moving example should end with quarks. Stone<-hand<-arm<-muscle<-muscle tissue<-muscle cell<-atom<-electron<-quark.

Or a dog displayed on a computer screen can be explained, more fundamentally in terms of certain voltages in bits of metal in the screen, which in turn can be explained, more fundamentally in terms of certain subatomic particles moving in a certain manner. If one were to keep explaining the world in this way and reach a point at which no more deeper explanations can be given. How would you respond to that?

2. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 17:19:51 Sunday August 14 2022

Stick moving stone

Firstly, the example of a stick moving a stone is an illustration to describe an instrumental series. The point is that the stone does not have within itself the power to generate the motion (or to compensate for the friction that would otherwise slow it down); but it can only move insasmuch as it is moved by something else (note that "motion" here means any sort of change of state; the something else can be the same object in a different state, as in the case of inertial motion, although when we apply relativity and quantum physics the notion of intertial motion of a single object becomes less clear). Neither does the stick. Neither does the muscle. Neither does the electron. Nor any other physical object. The series can only terminate with something that can generate a continuous motion (in order to maintain a system out of an equilibrium state) without having previously been moved itself. Electrons and quarks do not satisfy that property, and therefore cannot be the termination of the series. When we think about what could terminate the series, it can only be some self-existent being (i.e. a being which exists but is not dependent on anything outside itself for that existence), which is the classical theist definition of God. We then show that this has the usual list of divine attributes. Thus an electron or quark cannot be the termination of the series, since they lack the divine attributes, which the termination of the series must have.

So I agree that there will be a point where no deeper explanation can be given. But that point will not be any material substance such as an electron or quark.

I am also not quite sure how you move from electron to quark. Electrons are not composed of quarks, but can interact with them through photon, W-, or Z0 exchange. In the sort of conditions we are discussing, there are not free quarks, but quarks only subsist virtually inside a bound state (a proton, neutron, pion, etc.). Unlike in mechanistic physics, these particles are not the sum of their parts, so we should really discuss the electron interacting with a proton rather than the quark.

3. Russia
Posted at 18:09:44 Wednesday August 24 2022

Has science disproved the immaterial soul?

4. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 17:51:24 Thursday August 25 2022

Science and the soul

I discussed this in one of the earlier posts in the series. The answer is 'No'. Studies such as this use a different definition of Soul. In Aristotelian metaphysics, the soul is the form of a living organism, i.e. describes how the various parts of the body are arranged, interact with each other, subsist in the larger organism, and outlines the possible states the being can change into while still remaining the same being.

So when a scientist says "everything reduces to the brain," i.e. the various neural pathways, that is part of what is meant by the "soul" in classical metaphysics. The idea of the soul as an inanimate force that drives us was derived from Cartesian philosophy.

5. John J
Posted at 15:33:27 Sunday August 28 2022


I've recently seen some claim that quarks can fit the need for a simple (possibly necessary) being, instead of the classical theist God.

They also usually reject essence and existence as being parts, so I was wondering what you thought of this and if there are other ways quarks have parts

6. Dominik Kowalski
Posted at 11:14:19 Tuesday July 18 2023

Individual quarks are changeable, plus they can in and out of existence. Their necessity is impossible

Post Comment:

Some html formatting is supported,such as <b> ... <b> for bold text , < em>... < /em> for italics, and <blockquote> ... </blockquote> for a quotation
All fields are optional
Comments are generally unmoderated, and only represent the views of the person who posted them.
I reserve the right to delete or edit spam messages, obsene language,or personal attacks.
However, that I do not delete such a message does not mean that I approve of the content.
It just means that I am a lazy little bugger who can't be bothered to police his own blog.
Weblinks are only published with moderator approval
Posts with links are only published with moderator approval (provide an email address to allow automatic approval)

What is 4×10-3?