During my first Critical Thinking class, the the professor assigned a paper on the problem of evil. Here's how Wikipedia describes the problem of evil:
The problem of evil assumes that God is both benevolent and omnipotent. One formulation of the problem of evil may be schematized as follows:
- If God exists, then there would be no evil in the world.
- There is evil in the world.
- Therefore, God does not exist.
Our assignment was to come up with an argument against the problem of evil. It was definitely a good way to dive into the course. I spent a lot of time thinking about the problem and reading up on arguments that others had come up with.
I think I did a decent job considering the minimal amount of instruction we received prior to the assignment and my rusty essay-writing skills.
Christian G. Warden
In Evil and Omnipotence, J. L. Mackie summarizes the problem of evil to show that the theist's belief in the existence of God is irrational. Not only is reason unable to prove the existence of God, but the beliefs of the theist are in direct conflict with each other.
The problem of evil argues that, because of the nature of God and the existence of evil, God cannot exist. The main beliefs regarding God with respect to the problem of evil are that God is omnipotent and omni-benevolent. Though not explicitly stated by Mackie, it is generally accepted that God's omnipotence subsumes his omniscience; that is, there are no situations over which God could not have control due to his ignorance thereof. The conflict arises because, in spite of God's all-powerful and all-good nature, evil exists.
If God were omnipotent and omni-benevolent, he would prevent evil from occurring. Therefore, accepting the premise that evil does exist, either God does not exist, or God is either not as good or not as powerful as is commonly held.
Mackie points out that the problem of evil is only a problem for people who believe that God exists, and that God is omnipotent and omni-benevolent. No such problem exists in the minds of brights (those with a naturalistic view of the world), polytheists who believe in gods with conflicting goals, nor monotheists who believe in a god which has limits to its power, knowledge, or goodness. For example, consider the following argument regarding a different supernatural being, the Flying Spaghetti Monster1:
If the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM) exists, everyone would be a pirate.
Everyone is not a pirate.
The FSM does not exist.
Few objections would be raised to the conclusion above because, to paraphrase Richard Dawkins2, we are all Flying Spaghetti Monster atheists; there is no "problem of pirates" commonly discussed among philosophers.
So, in attempting to rebut Mackie's argument, we must presume that God exists or, at least, that we have strong reason to believe that God exists.
We can concede that the premises of the problem of evil conflict without accepting that the conclusion is valid. If we accept that the God is great (omnipotent and omni-benevolent), it follows that God would not, and indeed could not, have created a world with evil. Furthermore, if the world God created were about to be subjected to evil, he would be able to and would be compelled to prevent it. That would mean that the second premise, that evil exists, must be false. The existence of evil seems self-evident, though. So how can we claim that evil does not exist?
We can think of evil as being relative to good. Every act by a human could conceivably be better (more good) or worse (more evil). Likewise, any natural act that affects mankind could be better for mankind or worse. There is no concrete distinction between an evil act and a good one. There can only be judgments made between the relative goodness of two acts or events.
When we say that God is all-good, that means infinitely good. If there is an infinite scale of goodness in our world and all possible worlds, there is always the possibility of more goodness, for infinite means that there are no bounds. So, the problem of evil could be similarly stated as the problem of imperfection:
If God exists, the world would be perfectly good.
The world is not perfectly good.
God does not exist.
Stated this way, it seems more logical to accept that God is omni-benevolent despite the fact that we can find evidence in the world of imperfection.
If we consider good and evil not as a duality, but rather a scale of goodness, it becomes clear that the case for saying that evil exists is not quite as strong. Instead, it might be better stated that the best scenario does not always occur. But this is a necessary condition of a world in which goodness is infinite. For any event perpetrated or allowed to occur by God could always be upstaged by an even better one.
It is also possible that humans, not being omniscient, are unable to appreciate an apparently evil act in its full context. Because there are an unlimited number of events occurring in the world, and an unlimited number of interactions among natural events and living beings, both sentient and not, it is impossible to judge the totality of a single event's goodness. Often, different value judgments will be made upon an act viewed from different perspectives.
Consider the execution of a convicted murderer. The family of the murderer's victim might view the execution as the ultimate good act, while the murderer's family might view it as the most evil. Taking into account the values of the rest of society or humanity, the execution would be valued as somewhere in between the two extremes. The value of the act would be different still in the context of subsequent events that it influences.
While it seems all too easy to find evil in the world, upon further contemplation, such evil can easily be redefined in terms of its relative position on a scale of goodness. And although an argument against the problem of evil does not prove the existence of God, it demonstrates a method of reconciling a belief in God with the apparent evil that surrounds us.
Murray, Michael, "Leibniz on the Problem of Evil", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2005/entries/leibniz-evil/>.
Wikipedia Contributors, "Problem of evil", Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 7 February 2006, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Problem_of_evil&oldid=38547800>.
Wikipedia Contributors, "Theodicy", Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, 4 February 2006, <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Theodicy&oldid=38081634>.
1 The Flying Spaghetti Monster is fictional god-like being invented in 2005 CE to parody the "Intelligent Design" advocates wishing to teach creationism in US schools. One of the defining characteristics of the FSM is its fondness for pirates. See www.venganza.org for more information.
2 Richard Dawkins states in "The Root of All Evil?", a television special for Channel 4 in the UK, that we are all teapot atheists with respect to Bertrand Russell's teapot in space.
My argument is admittedly weak. Our second assignment is going to be to rewrite this essay, so hopefully the class will have improved my arguing skills before then.
Update: I've completed my second paper on the problem of evil. I had the option of changing my argument to be in agreement with the problem of evil, but I got lazy, and kept my original argument.
The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else. - Frederic Bastiat