Why I’m an Atheist, Part Six: The Logical Problem of Evil
I was going to cover the Ontological Argument today, but it’s really, really boring. So instead I’m doing the famous Problem of Evil! What fun.
Any atheist will tell you that we spend far more time replying to theistic arguments than we do advancing anti-theistic arguments of our own. I think this supports the common atheist claim that we merely lack belief in God rather than actively saying that he doesn’t exist, but the general reluctance of many atheists to make proactive arguments of their own does have a downside. It casts atheism as an endlessly defensive position, nothing more than a set of rebuttals to the constant onslaught of theism. Even requests by atheists to ‘prove God’ very quickly turn into attempts at refuting one of the standard arguments for his existence, since those are what theists most frequently reply with.
Despite all of that, there are some good anti-theistic arguments out there. The most popular and well-known of these is the Problem of Evil, which often gets shortchanged on the internet by being presented as ‘evil exists therefore God doesn’t QED’. Needless to say, it’s a bit more complex than that, as it should be given its very long history. The first thing to keep in mind is that it can be divided into two distinct types: the logical problem of evil and the evidential problem of evil . Let’s start with the former.
The Logical Problem of Evil
The logical problem of evil is deductive, and seeks to demonstrate that the existence of God is logically incompatible with the existence of evil. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to go with the standard monotheistic definition of ‘God’, although I’ll have more to say on that later (as usual). This type of the argument goes back to Epicurus, but has of course been altered and refined over time. In more recent years it has received something of a revival under the philosopher J.L. Mackie. His version is well worth reading if you can get your hands on it (citation at the bottom of this post), but the gist of his kind of argument can be summed up like this:
- If God exists, then God is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect.
- If God is omnipotent, then God has the power to eliminate all evil.
- If God is omniscient, then God knows when evil exists.
- If God is morally perfect, then God has the desire to eliminate all evil.
- Evil exists.
- If evil exists and God exists, then either God doesn’t have the power to eliminate all evil, or doesn’t know when evil exists, or doesn’t have the desire to eliminate all evil.
- Therefore, God doesn’t exist. (Source)
As you can see, it’s a good deal more involved than just ‘evil exists, now explain God’. This kind of argument is one which involves an apparent contradiction between God’s attributes (omniscience, omnipotence, and being wholly good) and a fact about the world (the existence of evil). Other anti-theistic arguments highlight apparent contradictions just between the attributes, but those are, I feel, of a less compelling nature.
After presenting the argument, Mackie goes on to list a few of what he calls ‘adequate solutions’ to the problem: theists could deny God’s omnipotence in some way (God cannot prevent all evils), or deny that evil exists, instead defining it as a privation of good (a popular response). However, he goes on to claim that many of these adequate solutions are never fully adopted by theists – those who claim that God is not omnipotent in this regard will probably still believe him to be omnipotent in other ways, and those who say that evil is a privation of good would probably think of such privation as itself being evil.
He then goes on to name some fallacious solutions. I won’t go into them all in depth, because really, the most important one is the claim that evil is necessary for the existence of human free will. This is the most common theistic response to the problem of evil, and is often assumed to trump it completely. (Another important and related response is one that runs something like ‘The world is, in the long-term, better off with evil than without evil’. I won’t cover it here, but do look it up.)
According to many theists, it is an extremely good thing that humans are endowed with free will. However, in order for us to be truly free, as opposed to merely having the illusion of freedom, it is necessary that we be capable of choosing to do evil. Yes, God could have limited our choices, or prevented our evil choices from having any real consequences, but either would destroy our freedom. According to this solution to the problem of evil, the good free actions of humanity are, on balance, better than the evils which are produced by that freedom, and also better than those actions would be if they were determined by God. Mackie attempts to counter this reply, but I personally feel that it goes a long way towards wrecking the logical problem of evil. It’s possible to debate endlessly over the exact meaning of ‘freedom’ and ‘goodness’ (and trust me, people have), but in the end I feel that there is too much ‘wiggle room’ in this kind of argument. Remember, it is trying to show that God’s existence is logically contradicted by the existence of evil, which means that there should be no great uncertainty as to the terms and assumptions involved.
However, I will say two things more about this version of the problem. Firstly, it is telling that almost no theists are willing to concede that God is not all-good, or is indifferent to human affairs, or that his conception of ‘goodness’ is so totally alien to our own that what we see as evil he sees as good. (And on that last one I’m not talking about evil as being a pre-requisite for some future, greater good which we would recognize as such. I mean that no theists will admit to the possibility that God’s ideas of good and evil are simply utterly different to our own.) It bears repeating that theists and atheists alike use philosophical arguments to buttress their positions rather than in a spirit of discovery. I’ll be saying much more about this in the next post, where I’ll discuss the evidential problem of evil.
(Oh, and I should reiterate that this is a fairly superficial treatment of the whole subject. I’m giving you my opinions on all of these arguments, along with some of the background information necessary to understand that opinion, but these posts are by no means complete guides to any of theistic or anti-theistic arguments. There’s a lot more that can be said about them on both sides, but unfortunately, I don’t have time to write about it all.)