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Problem of Evil

What Are They Saying About God and Evil? (New York: Paulist, 1989)
© Barry Whitney
Chapter 7: Some Philosophical Theodicies

In the preceding chapters, we have discussed some of the most prominent and important of the contemporary writings on the theodicy issue. There are, however, various other writers and positions which most assuredly merit our attention. The sheer volume of material and the complexity of the topic precludes, unfortunately, a discussion of many of these relevant writings. Yet, in this and in the following chapter, we shall consider some of the most prominent and influential of these contributions. This chapter will discuss a number of the more philosophically oriented theodicies: George Schlesinger’s proposed solution to the question; Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense; John Mackie and Anthony Flew on divine omnipotence and free will; and the theodicies of natural evil constructed by Richard Swinburne and Bruce Reichenbach. The following chapter will consider some of the more conservative and popular of the contemporary approaches.

(a) Schlesinger’s Greatest Happiness Solution

George Schlesinger is one of the few contemporary writers who has been willing to make the startling claim that the problem of evil can be resolved. Not many theologians and philosophers would accept this claim, although there certainly are some who have hailed Schlesinger’s theodicy as “ingenious,” “original” and “novel,” indeed, as “the most significant contribution to the problem of theodicy since Leibniz.” His arguments undeniably are important and certainly are intriguing. Schlesinger argues that while it might seem reasonable to think that an omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent God would have created the best of all possible worlds, this expectation is, in fact, quite unrealistic. One of the main tenets of his argument is to point out that “divine goodness is entirely different in kind from human goodness and, consequently, should not be judged in terms of notions formed on the basis of our acquaintance with the latter” (Schlesinger, “Problem of Evil” 244). Thus, while it may be morally reprehensible for human beings “not to do as much as one possibly can to make others happy,” this demand logically cannot apply to God (246). God cannot produce a greatest state of happiness for us any more than God can create the greatest integer. Both are logical impossibilities (i244).

Schlesinger’s point is that since “there is no prima facie case for saying that the greatest possibilities for happiness are finite, God’s inability to create the greatest state of happiness” cannot be used as evidence against the existence of the deity (ibid.). If God had created a world with far less evil, a world with much happier people, the problem of evil still would remain: creatures could conceive an endless list of requirements, the fulfillment of which would increase their happiness even further. If God had diminished the amount of suffering, moreover, until it vanished completely, the problem of evil would not be resolved: God would have a world of happy creatures, but since God would be aware of even greater possibilities for happiness which creatures could have had, this would render the deity morally reprehensible. The amount of evil in the world, consequently, in Schlesinger’s view, is “entirely irrelevant and cannot be introduced as evidence concerning the moral nature of God” (244.).

This solution to the theodicy problem has been criticized by a number of writers. Jay Rosenberg, for example, contends that while Schlesinger is correct in holding that we cannot state what kind of world God should have created, we can stipulate, nevertheless, what type of world a deity ought not to have created (216). God, he insists, should not have created a world in which the actual degree of happiness falls short of the potential degree (216-17). Winslow Shea elaborates upon this critique, contending that (despite Schlesinger’s arguments) a greatest possible happiness is logically possible. His somewhat complex argument concludes that while it is possible that the series of possible states of happiness is finite, it may well be infinite, nevertheless, yet with an upper and a lower limit. The point he makes is that “in either case a greatest happiness is logically possible, and therefore an omnipotent being could have, and possibly should have, created it” (Shea 219-25). Shea maintains also that, even if one were to grant the viability of Schlesinger’s argument, the consequences would be problematic: Schlesinger’s God is unworthy of worship: “If He cannot be blamed for not creating more happiness than He did create, on the ground that otherwise no matter how much happiness He created He could still be blamed for not creating more of it, then it seems to me,” Shea writes, that God “cannot be praised for having created any happiness at all” (227). He concludes that Schlesinger’s God is infinitely inferior to what deity might have been since “the deity has created a world infinitely worse than millions of worlds He could have made” (228).

(b) Plantinga’s Free Will Defense

The free will defense has been a prominent feature of theodicy since at least the time of Saint Augustine. There are many contemporary advocates of this defense, the most influential of whom generally is considered to be Alvin Plantinga. He distinguishes his use of the free will defense from a free will theodicy (like that found in Saint Augustine, for example, and in numerous other writers). A free will theodicy is an attempt to explain why there is evil in the world, while Plantinga’s defense is the more modest attempt to show merely (yet significantly) that evil is not incoherent with belief in God.

Plantinga denies the arguments put forth by contemporary philosophers like Mackie and Flew, arguments which insist that God “could have created significantly free creatures” and yet have caused them “to always do only what’s right.” Plantinga is aware that many philosophers endorse a “compatibilist” analysis of freedom, according to which it is assumed to be possible that some actions are free, despite the fact that they are all causally determined by events entirely outside our control (“Self-Profile” 45) . Plantinga’s point, however, is that if this were true, the free will defense would fail; he has offered detailed and complex arguments against its being true.

A major premise of the free will defense is that it is possible that God considers it more valuable that there be moral goods, goods which result from the moral activity of creatures freely doing what is right (and also the concurrent possibility of suffering and evil), than to have a universe without such goods and evils (Plantinga, “Self-Profile” 47). Plantinga concedes that there may be many possible worlds which display a better balance of good and evil than does our actual world, worlds which may be populated with significantly free creatures who do only what is right. Yet his point is that it is possible that it was not within the power of God to actualize any of them, despite the fact that God is omnipotent (ibid.). He has defended this claim by arguing that it is logically impossible for God to cause free actions in creatures.

Plantinga’s writings on the free will defense have given rise to an impressive array of commentaries, both supportive and critical. His writings are highly complex and he not only has exploited his considerable technical skills as a logician, but also has made ample use of logical symbolism to formalize his argumentation. Unfortunately, many of the attacks upon his position have missed his basic point that he has attempted to construct a defense, not a theodicy.

Hick, for example, argues against Plantinga’s claim that the amount of evil in the world does not render the existence of God unlikely or improbable. Hick charges Plantinga, accordingly, with failing to deal with the “substantial problem” (Evil 370); he finds fault, in other words, with Plantinga’s lack of a theodicy. Yet, besides the fact that this type of criticism has missed Plantinga’s point, the latter’s recent work in probability theory seems, nevertheless, to answer criticisms like Hick’s. Plantinga has, in short, attempted to show that it simply is not true that the amount of evil in the world renders God’s existence improbable or unlikely.

Another problem which is often cited, however, focuses upon Plantinga’s appeal to the devil as the cause of physical evils: a host of critics find this extremely naive and implausible in our enlightened day and age (Griffin, God 272). Plantinga, nonetheless, has defended his appeal to Satan (although rather weakly) by arguing, essentially, that Christians who believe in a supernatural being called “God” should not find it implausible to believe also in a supernatural evil power. A better approach, perhaps, has been argued by David Basinger, for example, who has sought to demonstrate that Plantinga’s free will defense actually does not need the controversial appeal to Satan. It must only be shown that just as God cannot unilaterally bring it about that free creatures always act for good ends, so neither can God unilaterally bring it about that “events in nature be perfectly correlated to the needs of specific humans” (Basinger, “Divine Omnipotence” 20).

Plantinga’s understanding, finally, of divine omnipotence has been questioned by many commentators. Pike, for example, has argued that the concept can be defended only if it can be shown that God has the ability to use the world’s evils for an ultimately good end. Plantinga’s delimitation of the theodicy issue to a defense rather than a solution which would have incorporated some appeal to the mystery of divine salvation (the aspect Pike finds lacking) renders his theodicy “theologically incomplete.” Indeed, as commentator Kenneth Surin has argued, “the very simplicity of Plantinga’s proposal for resolving the ‘problem of evil’ is . . . problematic. His beguiling ‘minimalism’ [leads to] . . . a pared down theodicy acceptable to the theodicist with greatly reduced or even no real theological expectations” (74).

(c) Mackie and Flew on Free Will and Omnipotence

Plantinga’s argument that it is logically impossible for God to create creatures such that they always freely perform good actions has been recognized as one impressive way to answer the well-known criticism of John Mackie and Antony Flew against the viability of the free will defense. Their challenge has been to insist that if God really were omnipotent, God could have created a world in which free beings always freely choose what is good. Mackie’s main contention is that God was not faced with the choice between creating free beings which inevitably would use their freedom for evil as well as for good, on the one hand, and creating innocent automata with no freedom, automata which would be conditioned to do only good, on the other hand. There “was open to [God] the obviously better possibility of making beings who would act freely but always go right.” That God did not do so “is inconsistent” with being both omnipotent and wholly good” and this “is sufficient to dispose of” the free will solution (Mackie, “Evil and Omnipotence” 46-60) .

Flew’s argument makes a similar point: since a free action is one which is not externally compelled but one which flows from the nature of the agent, such action is not incompatible with its being caused: God could have, without contradiction, “created people who would always as a matter of fact freely have chosen to do the right thing.”

In his free will defense, Plantinga has attempted to answer this notable charge of Flew and Mackie, as he does also in his appeal (not mentioned in the previous discussion) to a “transworld depravity.” It is possible, he argues, that every human being is depraved to the extent that everyone will freely choose wrongly on at least one occasion. If this is the case, then it is possible that God could not have created free creatures who always choose good.

(d) Swinburne and Reichenbach: Theodicies of Natural Evil

The free will defense attempts to show that the existence of moral evil is not logically incompatible with God’s existence. Whether it has been defended satisfactorily is a contentious point, yet, in any event, the problem of natural or physical evil remains: how are such evils as disease, birth defects, droughts, famines, and so on, to be reconciled with the existence of an all-powerful and all-loving God? The traditional Augustinian theodicy, which attributes natural evil to divine punishment or to divinely orchestrated tests of faith, and so on (as we have seen), is less than adequate in the minds of many contemporary writers, as is Plantinga’s appeal to evil powers as the cause of natural evils. The Thomist view of natural evil as an inevitable by-product of natural laws which are necessary for human life may be more tenable as an explanation, as is the view of John Hick that natural evils serve as the necessary environment for human “soul-making.”

Yet Richard Swinburne’s theodicy of natural evils has gained widespread attention among contemporary scholars. His view offers fresh insights into this question, and (while controversial) at the very least his theodicy supplements what is best in the aforementioned solutions to the problem of natural evil. Bruce Reichenbach also has done much work recently on this problem, and we shall refer to his writings briefly after a discussion of Swinburne’s work.

Swinburne sees natural evil as a necessary condition for human free will. Natural evils, he explains, “are necessary if agents are to have the knowledge of how to bring about evil or prevent its occurrence, knowledge which they must have if they are to have a genuine choice between bringing about evil and bringing about good” (Existence of God 202-03). Swinburne explains that we acquire knowledge of the consequences of our actions from the consequences of past actions. We come to know that certain actions have harmful effects through the cumulative experience of such injurious consequences. “There must be naturally occurring evils,” he concludes, “if men are to know how to cause evils themselves or are to prevent evil occurring. And there have to be many such evils, if men are to have sure knowledge” 207), knowledge which is induced from past experiences.

The “crux of the problem of evil” (Existence of God 219), however, as Swinburne and most others recognize, is the quantity of evil in the world. This objection is a serious obstacle to belief in the existence of God: some evil is necessary if we are to be free agents, yet the question is whether God has “inflicted too much suffering on too many people (and animals) to give knowledge to others for the sake of the freedom of the latter” (219). Swinburne’s response is that there are divinely imposed limits to the amount of suffering given to us. Just as there is a temporal limit, for example, (since we all must die) so must there be, presumably, a limit to the intensity and depth of possible suffering set by the constitution of the brain.

Critics still insist, nevertheless, that the limit is too wide, that we suffer far too much to justify the good which may result. To this concern, Swinburne has responded:

the trouble is that the fewer natural evils a God provides, the less opportunity he provides for man to exercise responsibility. For the less natural evil, the less knowledge he gives to man of how to produce or avoid suffering and disaster, the less opportunity for his exercise of the higher virtues, and the less experience of the harsh possibilities of existence; and the less he allows to men the opportunity to bring about large-scale horrors, the less the freedom and responsibility which he gives to them.

The alternative would have been for God to have created “a toy-world, a world where things matter, but not very much; where we can choose and our choices can make a small difference, but the real choices remain God’s. For he simply would not allow us the choice of doing real harm” (Swinburne, The Existence of God, 219).

Commentators on Swinburne’s theodicy have raised several other issues. Surin questions, for example, the justice of Swinburne’s God: how can a just God allow countless millions of innocent people to suffer (Hiroshima, the Black Death, etc.) for the sake of others to learn to act responsibly? Eleonore Stump, furthermore, queries whether it is necessary, for instance, that knowledge of the consequences of our actions must come from induction on the basis of past experience. Why cannot God provide this knowledge directly (not “face to face,” a possibility which Swinburne rejects, but perhaps) in a series of vivid, message-laden dreams which could be verified by subsequent scientific testing (Stump, “Knowledge” 52)? This knowledge, in some cases at least, could also be gained by scientific means, Stump suggests, rather than through supernaturally induced means.

David Acinar, moreover, argues for the validity of the verbal knowledge God could give us “face to face,” despite Swinburne’s rejection of this possibility. God, he proposes, could implant the needed data in our brains prior to birth so that the relevant information would come to consciousness when it is needed in various life circumstances, thereby eliminating the need for so much natural evil (“On Natural Evil” 39).

But let us turn now to Reichenbach’s theodicy of natural evil. It is not as well known nor as controversial as Swinburne’s, yet it certainly deserves mention, if only briefly. Where Swinburne argues that natural evils are necessary for there to be a meaningful human freedom, Reichenbach’s more modest claim is that the possibility of natural evil is inherent in the system of natural laws which supports human life. He rejects, then, the claim of numerous atheistic (or at least skeptical) critics that natural evil is more than sufficient ground for rejecting belief in God.

McCloskey, for example, has argued that if God really existed, God could eliminate natural evils by miraculous intervention or by having created a very different world in the first place. Reichenbach’s response has been to point out that divine intervention is a dangerous concept which would, if in fact it did occur, destabilize the world to the extent that rationality itself would be in jeopardy. In such a world, “there would be no necessary relation between phenomena, and in particular between cause and effect” (Reichenbach, Evil and a Good God 103). In such a world, “agents could not entertain rational expectations, make predictions, estimate probabilities, or calculate prudence. They would not be able to know what to expect about any course of action they would like to take. Whether or not such action would be possible . . . would be unknown or unknowable” (103).

Reichenbach contends, in short, that a world which functioned by intermittent divine intervention (miracles) would be a world which is incompatible with the existence of genuinely free and moral agents. This simply was not a viable option, accordingly, for God to actualize, since divine interventions would imply that “agents could not will evil, and even if they could, the evil which they willed could not be actualized,” since God would permit no evil to occur. With respect to McCloskey’s second point, that God could have created a world with different natural laws in order to prevent or eliminate natural evils, Reichenbach’s response is to argue that this criticism also is flawed, “for to introduce different natural laws would entail alteration of the objects governed by those laws” (Evil and a Good God, 110). He appeals to F. R. Tennant who made this point most precisely:

To illustrate what is here meant: if water is to have the various properties in virtue of which it plays its beneficial part in the economy of the physical world and the life of mankind, it cannot at the same time lack its obnoxious capacity to drown us. The specific gravity of water is as much a necessary outcome of its ultimate constitution as its freezing point, or its thirst-quenching and cleansing functions. There cannot be assigned to any substance an arbitrarily selected group of qualities, from which all that ever may prove unfortunate to any sentient organism can be eliminated, especially if . . . the world . . . is to be a calculable cosmos.

The point is the same for human beings as it is for natural entities like water: God cannot create a different set of natural laws without affecting the nature of water, nor can God do so without altering the very constitution of human beings themselves (Reichenbach, Evil and a Good God 111).

Parts of this chapter, including the endnotes, are not yet online. They are forthcoming. Other chapters from the book are available on this website.

© BARRY WHITNEY, 1994, 2004. Please request permission from the author at DrBarryWhitney@mac.com to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination.