Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Ivory Cubicle: The Problem of Evil: Part 1

Nick Barden is an 8 year Generation Joshua member, college student and philosophy nerd. He dreams of eventually getting a Ph.D. in philosophy, moving to an ivory tower and spending the rest of his days in philosophical bliss. Until then, he spends his days as a staff worker in a Gen J cubicle annoying Lucas Mason with quotes from random dead white males, philosophizing with Jeremiah Lorrig and attempting to convince Joel to leave his world domination schemes and pursue a life of peace and personal self-satisfaction (so far, no success).  Currently he is confined to his cubicle. The Ivory Cubicle.
The Ivory Cubicle is a weekly column by Nick Barden, and will feature new blogs on various philosophical topics every Thursday.

When I was around 13 or 14, living in a house in rural Kansas, we had cats. A lot of them. It started at two, both females, and then a stray male came along. And as things of that sort tend to go, we soon had a mama cat with a bunch of baby kittens, and it quickly took off from there. We watched our kittens enter the world, fluff up a bit over the next couple of weeks, and then eventually grow into teenaged cats.

But life in rural Kansas is hard on a cat. There are a variety of wild animals who think cats are a tasty snack, there are cars on a gravel road that runs by the house, and then there’s the neighbor’s dog. When their time came, as it inevitably did, I, as the oldest guy in the family, was given the unpleasant task of burying them. So I would place the cat in a shoebox, dig a plot in our ever-growing cat cemetery in the backyard, lay it to rest, and mark its place with a makeshift cross made of two crossed twigs and a rubber band. But the worst of it all was my little sister, then a mere 5 or 6 years old. She loved those cats, had given each of them carefully selected names (ranging from Patches to Princess), and was able to, somehow, tell the difference between all of them when our best attempts failed. Every cat funeral was accompanied by immense sobbing.

Sometimes it’s in the smallest things in life that the problem of evil surfaces. We can realize all the horrible atrocities that occur in the world, the genocide in Nazi Germany, the millions of unborn being slaughtered here in the world. But it’s easy to miss the full impact of it when the evil is distant. It’s when evil hits close to home that we go searching for answers. It’s when a cat dies, when your parents split up, when you notice the razors marks covering your friend’s arms for the first time.

At its most basic form, the problem of evil presents itself in the question "why do bad things happen to good people?" A number of Christian theodicies (a theodicy is a justification for God's action) have attempted to explain the problem of evil using notions of the fall, free will and a higher good, and in these next two posts, I’m hoping to unpack a few ways that Christian philosophers have dealt with the problem of evil.

The Augustinian Theodicy

St. Augustine, a church father from the 4th and 5th century, crafted a theodicy that has become widely accepted in Christian philosophy. The Augustinian theodicy deals specifically with the argument that God is the author of evil. The objection is as follows:

1). God is the author of all of reality
2). Evil is a part of reality
3). Therefore, God is the author of evil.

Augustine evades the dilemma by clarifying the second point. For Augustine, evil does not have its own independent existence, but is a deficiency of good. It is "less real" than good, and it requires good for its very existence (in order for a deficiency to exist, there must first exist something for there to be a deficiency of). Evil comes into existence when man perverts and twists God's good creation. It enters the world when we try to obtain something good in an illegitimate way.

Augustine’s theodicy is wholly dependent on man’s free will. If man does not have free will, then evil entering the world is still ultimately caused by God, it is just caused by him because he created an entity that necessarily does evil. If man’s will is free, however, then he himself can be the cause of evil entering the world. This theodicy also works when applied to other free beings, such as angels.

The Modern Debate on the Problem of Evil

In the modern philosophical culture, the most prominent version of the problem of evil comes from Australian atheist J. L. Mackie who formulated the “logical problem of evil.”

Mackie argues that traditional conceptions of God have made him 1). omniscient (all-seeing), 2). omnipotent (all-powerful), and 3). omnibenevolent (wholly good). Yet there is evil in the world. The existence of all four in the universe is a contradiction. To solve the problem, we must either, 1). deny God's omniscience and claim that he cannot see the evil, 2). deny his omnipotence and claim that he is powerless to remove the evil, 3). deny his omnibenevolence and claim that he is wicked, or 4). deny the existence of evil altogether. The fourth is obviously false as we observe evil around us on a daily basis. Thus, Mackie concludes that either God does not exist or he is “impotent, ignorant or wicked.” This theory became the dominant view of academia prior to the 1970s.

Alvin Plantinga, a Christian philosopher from Notre Dame, crafted what he called the Free Will defense to the problem of evil, which went a long way towards answering Mackie's objections and establishing the credibility of Christianity in the intellectual community. Plantinga's argument claimed to show the possibility of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient God allowing evil, evading Mackie’s dilemma. In Plantinga's words:
"A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can't cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren't significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can't give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God's omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good."
The theory has attained wide acceptance among Christian philosophers but has sustained some criticism due to its theory on the nature of the will. Plantinga’s particular conception of the will is referred to as metaphysical libertarianism, which holds that the will is completely free and that its actions are not the result of any external factors. It has been attacked by many causal determinists, who hold that all future events are the necessary result of prior events—reality is like a row of dominoes, once one falls, the other must fall in a particular way. In my next post, we’ll look at some of the underlying debates on the freedom of the will as they apply to the Problem of Evil.

By Nick Barden


  1., Nick. Thank you.

  2. hmmm... it will be interesting to see where you go with this. (Good writing style, by the way.)

  3. Isn't the Augustinian Theodicy built on the false assumption that God created good rather than God is good?

    Evil is the absence of good. Good is defined by the attributes of God. So, evil is the absence of the attributes of God. Since God has always existed and is always unchanging (His attributes have remained the same from eternity past to eternity future), evil has always had a chance to exist. Hence God did not create evil.

    Doesn't this (informal) proof show that the Augustinian Theodicy is incorrect?

    1. There's another dimension to the Augustinian theodicy that I think speaks to your objection, and it relates to the actions of free individuals. The Augustinian theodicy usually argues that because God desires his creatures to love him freely he created them with the capacity to reject him, and that this was good. In this case, God does not create evil, but creates good creatures with the potential for evil.

      I did have one question on your argument (it's a bit too loose to call it a proof). How do you even get an absence of the attributes of God? According to your argument, in order to say that "evil has always had a chance to exist" it seems you would have to say "there has always been a chance for existence apart from the attributes of God," which seems to deny God's omnipresence. I think you'd be better off going a different direction with defining evil.