God’s Omnipotence And Sovereignty – Part Nine
The Logical Form of the Problem
One of the best–known statements of the logical form of the problem of Evil comes from J.L. Mackie, who claims that it is “positively irrational” to affirm, on the one hand, that God exit and is wholly good and omnipotent and yet to admit, on the other, that Evil exists. Mackie admits that the contradiction premises must be added, which spell out the meaning of terms like “good,” “evil,” and “omnipotent.” These additional principles are that good is opposed to Evil in such a way that a good thing always eliminates Evil as far as it can and that there are no limits to what an omnipotent thing can do. From there, it follows that a good omnipotent thing eliminates Evil. Then the proposition that a good omnipotent thing exists and that Evil exists are incompatibles.
Mackie claims that the proposition that God exists, combined with his additional premises, logically implies that Evil does not exist, which contradicts the (obviously true) proposition that Evil does exist. Theistic responses to Mackie’s argument (and to other similar arguments) have focused on the claim that a good being always eliminates Evil as far as possible. Why should we accept this additional premise? There seem to be quite a few circumstances in which a good being allows evil to occur, which could eliminate because eliminating the Evil would also eliminate a good, which is significant enough to “outweigh” the Evil allowed. For example, a heroic soldier might fall on a live grenade to save his comrades. His death is undoubtedly Evil (in the sense that we are using this term), yet his action in bringing about this Evil I nonetheless the action of a good person.
Perhaps by diving into a trench, the soldier could save his own life and prevent that Evil, but to do so would result in a greater evil (the death of all his comrades). So the good that is brought about by his action outweighs the Evil. It does not seem to be accurate, then, that a good being permanently eliminates Evil as far as it can. Perhaps it is true that a good being permanently eliminates Evil as far as it can without the loss of a greater good or the allowance of a worse evil. Almost all contemporary theodicies base their arguments on this “greater – good” principle. The Evil that God permits is justified because allowing that Evil makes possible the achievement of a greater good or the prevention of a worse evil. But at this point, we must be careful how we employ the “greater – good” relation in dealing with the problem of Evil.
The critic is likely to object that an omnipotent being must eliminate Evil without any net loss of good or increase of Evil. Unlike our heroic soldiers, an omnipotent being is supposed to be able to do anything. If truly omnipotent, God would never find himself in a position where some good is “out of reach” unless he allows some evil to occur. He could never find himself in a position analogous to the heroic soldier, for example, because he could always bring about the excellent result directly (e.g., by causing the grenade not to explode or by causing the soldiers to be miraculously unharmed in the blast).
The “greater–good” principle thus applies only to beings of limited power, like ourselves. The response has traditionally been that not even an omnipotent being can do anything. One limitation on omnipotence, which has generally been accepted by theists, as we noted in chapter two, is that even God cannot do what is broadly logically impossible. An omnipotent being cannot create a square circle or bring it about 2 + 2 = 5 because these contradictory states of affairs are not genuine possibilities. However, whether this point is relevant to the present discussion depends on whether the allowance of certain evils is logically necessary for certain goods to be achieved. But it seems plausible that this is so. Let us define a second-order good as a good that logically requires some evil’s existence (or at least the possibility) to be realized.
Various kinds of goods and evils have been claimed to be related in this way, giving rise to various types of theodicies. For example, certain kinds of moral virtues logically require certain evils. Courage seems inconceivable without the possibility of harm. Sympathy would be impossible apart from the suffering of others. Perhaps much of the Evil in the world – particularly much of the natural Evil – is necessary for human beings to have the opportunity to cultivate moral virtues, which are second-order goods.
Furthermore, these second-order goods are of such great value that their realization justifies the evils’ allowance whose existence (or possibility) they require. The idea certainly does not seem farfetched. It can be developed into a theodicy: God has designed the world to be, first and foremost, an environment that enables and facilitates each individual’s moral and spiritual development. This solution is termed a soul-making theodicy. The difficulties with soul-making theodicies are plentiful.
One problem is that not all natural evils seem to contribute to any greater good; some animals’ suffering is an example. Consider a scenario in which, far away from any human witness, a lightning strike starts a forest fire that burns a fawn severely and causes it to experience a slow, agonizing death. Indeed events like this occur, but why would a loving God allow them? There appears to be no second-order good for which this Evil is necessary.
The second problem is that in addition to making possible various second-order goods, such as courage and sympathy – evils, such as pain and suffering, also make possible second-order evils, such as cowardice and maliciousness. Allowing such evils as pain and suffering does not always lead to a greater good, and it even opens the door for certain evils that otherwise would be impossible. Or, to put the point differently, if second-order goods suffice to justify “first-order” evils like pain and suffering, the problem of Evil switches its focus to the existence of second-order evils, such as cowardice and maliciousness. By itself, the soul-making theodicy seems unable to identify any greater good that could justify God’s allowance of these second-order evils.
Because of this last problem, most theists who advocate a soul-making theodicy incorporate into their view another kind of theodicy as well: the free-will theodicy. According to this solution, second-order evils occur, such as acts of cowardice and maliciousness, because human beings make improper use of their freedom. The resulting Evil is due to human wickedness, not to God. But why should God give humans free will, and why should he allow them to use it so badly? The traditional answer is that moral freedom is a great good that outweighs the possibility of Evil that its existence requires. More specifically, God allows humans to freely act because, without doing so, humans could not be morally responsible agents, capable of freely doing good by responding to and loving their neighbors and their Creator.
In creating human beings, God desired to make creatures that would freely love and serve him. The “love” of a robot who can do nothing else is not worth much. The highest expression of love is communion with God, the greatest possible good for a human being. But for God to leave us genuinely free to act is to allow us the possibility of misusing that freedom – allowing us, for example, to choose to perform acts of great cowardice or maliciousness. Thus, true freedom involves significant risk and the possibility of a great good, which can be achieved in no other way. In this manner, the soul-making theodicy and free will theodicy work together to account for both first-order and second-order Evil. But why might the critic ask, couldn’t God give humans free will and guarantee that they always use their freedom wisely? Upon the first encounter, the critic’s question strikes many as nonsensical: indeed, it is thought if humans are genuinely free, then sometimes they will put that freedom to inappropriate use.
If God had created a world that guaranteed no one would ever do anything wrong, then the “freedom” of his creatures would not have been real; it would have been some pseudo freedom. But before we dismiss the critic too quickly, we should consider the way that Mackie formulates the objection: If God has made men such that they sometimes prefer what is good and sometimes what is evil in their free choices, why could he not have made men such that they always freely choose the good? Suppose there is no logical impossibility in a man’s freely choosing the good on one or several occasions. In that case, there cannot be a logical impossibility in freely choosing the good on every occasion. God was not, then, faced with a choice between making innocent automata and making beings who, acting freely, would sometimes go wrong. There was open to him the better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right. His failure to avail himself of this possibility is inconsistent with his being both omnipotent and wholly good.
Mackie’s objection highlights a scenario in which God creates free creatures who always freely choose to do what is right does seem to be a logically possible state of affairs. Thus, a component of a logically possible “world,” a maximal possible way things could have been. But if God is omnipotent, it has usually been thought that he can bring about anything logically possible: omnipotence implies that God can actualize any possible world. It seems that it was within God’s power to create a world containing free creatures but no evil. Thus, if this line of thinking is correct, the presence of Evil in the world entails that an omnipotent, perfect God does not exist. However, Alvin Plantinga has developed a powerful argument that Mackie’s objection is not sound. The heart of Plantinga’s argument rests on the libertarian view of freedom, which implies that if a person has a genuinely free choice, what the person will do in that situation is solely up to the person and not to God.
Suppose some individual is faced with choosing whether he will perform immoral acts, such as accepting a bribe. In Plantinga’s (fictional) example, a Curley politician has accepted a bribe of $35,000. That is, in the imaginary world, indeed, Curley has accepted the bribe. However, Suppose Curley had been offered a lesser sum, say only $20,000; would he have accepted this lesser bribe? Many philosophers would agree that one of the following propositions (but not both) is true:
- If Curley had been offered $20,000, he would have accepted the bribe.
- If Curley had been offered $20,000, he would have rejected the bribe.
Notice that both propositions (1) and (2) seem logically possible, and thus there is a possible world in which Curley accepts the lesser bribe and a possible world in which he rejects the lesser bribe. Suppose that (1) is true: Curley would freely accept the lesser bribe if it were offered. In that case, there is a logically possible world that God cannot actualize: the one in which (2) is true, and Curley rejects the bribe. If, on the other hand, (2) is true and Curley would freely reject the bribe, then the possible world in which proposition (1) is true turns out to be the world that God cannot actualize. Either way, it turns out that if we assume libertarian free will, we assume that either proposition (1) or (2) must be true. There are logically possible worlds that even an omnipotent being cannot bring into existence.
This conclusion directly undermines Mackie’s objection, which rests on the assumption that there is a logically possible world in which free beings exist but never do Evil. Plantinga’s response is to concede that there is such a logically possible world but not claim that we have no reason to think that this world is within God’s power to create. God cannot create some logically possible worlds; whether God can create a particular world depends on the free creatures’ choices. Perhaps Mackie might respond at this point by claiming that God, using his “middle knowledge” about what free creatures will do in various situations, should only have actualized free creatures who would never do Evil. However, even if God does possess middle knowledge (and we saw earlier that there might be problems with such a view), how do we know that there are possible free creatures who, if God created them, would never misuse their freedom? It seems at least possible that all the free beings God could actualize would misuse their freedom at some time.
Plantinga calls this condition “transworld depravity” since a creature with this condition will do some evil in any possible world in which that creature exists. The upshot is this. It seems possible that God could have faced this scenario in which all the creatures he created have transworld depravity. If he faced it, any world he actualized containing free creatures would also (eventually) have contained Evil. On the assumption that a world with both free creatures and Evil is better than a world with neither, God was justified in creating free creatures, even though he knew complete well that in doing so, the result would be (eventually) a “fallen” world.
What this scenario shows is that God and Evil are logically compatible. Note that Plantinga is not claiming that God faced this scenario. He is claiming that it is possible God faced it. It is all Plantinga needs because Mackie has asserted that God and Evil are logically incompatible-in order words, that there is no possible way that the world could have been such that God and evil both exist. Plantinga’s argument is a free-will defense: it does not state God’s actual reasons for allowing Evil but only what they could be. God’s actual reasons for allowing Evil, maybe those we do not know and perhaps could not know.
We should note that difficulties for a free-will theodicy (which is more ambitious than a free-will defense) remain. Such a theodicy is no more valid than the under saying the theory of free will be embodied. As we have encountered on more than one occasion, the debate between compatibilists and ongoing, and it is one that we cannot hope to resolve here. Another difficulty is that, as we have developed it so far, a free-will theodicy appears to account only for moral Evil. The free-will argument must be extended three ways to account for natural Evil. One way is to combine it with another theodicy, such as a soul-making theodicy, which accounts for natural Evil. Recall, however, that this combination still faced difficulties in accounting for certain kinds of natural Evil: those that seem to bear no relation to human free will (such as animal suffering).
A second way would be to see natural Evil as the work of superhuman free beings, such as Satan and his angels; this thinking converts natural’s Evil into moral Evil. A third possibility would be to see natural Evil as in some way a consequence of moral Evil, perhaps by interpreting it as a divine judgment on a fallen race. There is biblical support for the idea that the current state of nature is “unnatural,” in the sense that it is a consequence of sin, not an expression of God’s original plan or intention for it (see gen 3:17-19; Rom 8:19-23.). Regardless of which option one selects, critics of theism will question one’s basis for claiming to know that natural Evil should be viewed in that way. It must be admitted that, as full-fledged theodicy, neither free will arguments alone nor such arguments taken in conjunction with a soul-making argument can be established conclusively. It is difficult for the theist to be confident that she truly understands why God allows all the Evil we find in the world. Fortunately for the theist, though, it is not necessary to have a full-fledged theodicy to rebut the logical form of the problem of Evil.
The charge of the atheist, in this case, is that theism is self-contradictory. The result of this charge is to be able to explain why God allows the evils he does. It is sufficient to know that there are possible reasons why an all-good, omnipotent being might allow Evil if one wishes to show that the occurrence of Evil and God’s existence are not logically contradictory. (It is for this reason Plantinga’s response to Mackie is a free defense and not a free-will theodicy.)
As theodicies, the soul-making and free will arguments may have their limitations. Still, their value in producing a defense against the logical form of the problem of Evil is formidable. The free will argument, for example, shows that it is not necessarily true that a good being always eliminates all the Evil it can or that an omnipotent being could eliminate all Evil without the loss of any greater good. And yet, the atheist needs some proposition to prove that the existence of God and Evil are logically contradictory: specifically, she needs some proposition that is necessarily true and that, combined with the fact that Evil exists, entails that God does not exist. No one, so far, has been able to do this. The charge of contradiction that Mackie and others bring is strong, and the burden of proof is on them to show what the contradiction is. Unless they can do so, there is no good reason to conclude that the existence of Evil proves that there is no God.